Many people have moved from asking whether college athletes should be paid or why they should be paid to how they could be paid. It’s a fatalistic position based on the fact that everywhere in the world, amateur sports eventually lost out to professional sports. The US has the odd quirk of attaching high level athletics to higher education but whether that ultimately makes a difference remains to be seen. For pay-for-play advocates, the answer is already that it should not.
But the more interesting question is when. Or more specifically what will be the trigger that sets in motion the move to professional college athletics? Candidates emerge and are annointed all the time. Newspaper and magazine articles, lawsuits, possible unionization, an influx of money into college athletes are all pointed to as being the tipping point. So far, none have panned out and the whole exercise is becoming a bit like the boy who cried wolf. But a possible answer has come from Brazil. It could be as simple as waiting for the best football or basketball player ever.
Even the casual sports fan knows of Lionel Messi but few outside of soccer fans are familiar with Neymar. Neymar is the future of the Brazilian National Team and may be the only player alive right now who could challenge Messi over his career. Neymar is a little younger than Messi, but should be doing battle with him in Spain’s La Liga or in the Champions League. An even more frightening prospect is the idea of the two of them as teammates at Barcelona. But while Messi is the star NBA point guard, Neymar has so far played the role of the streetball legend.
The reason is that many forces well beyond Neymar’s control are keeping him from leaving his boyhood Sao Paulo club of Santos. Chief among them is the convoluted ownership of Neymar’s transfer rights. Normally soccer clubs own these rights, buying and selling players on the transfer market. Neymar is the classic case of third-party ownership. In exchange for paying a portion of his salary, a number of third parties (agents and investment funds typically) own a portion of Neymar’s transfer rights. European clubs typically must buy out all of the third-party owners in addition to the original club. In Neymar’s case, that means at least two investment funds, the club, and Neymar himself (his company owns 10% of his transfer rights). All of these parties are looking for a return on their investment, meaning the total transfer fee needed is approaching record levels.
Money could solve all those problems, and despite upcoming financial fair play rules and clubs suffering with debt and losses, there surely exists a team on the continent who could pony up the transfer fee, which could approach nine figures (in dollars, euros, or pounds, however you care to slice it). But other forces are at work. For starters, Brazil’s robust economy compared to Europe is keeping players like Neymar within the means of Brazilian clubs:
A few short years ago, there would be nothing to debate. Financial realities already would have forced Neymar across the Atlantic. Brazilian football simply would not be able to afford him. Times have changed, though. Europe is in crisis. Brazil’s economy has been enjoying a consumer-led boom. For companies seeking to connect with those consumers, an involvement with football makes sense. Sponsors, then, can be brought on board to help with the wages that big-name players can command as much at home as by moving to Europe.
Those means extend all the way to the government. Banco do Brasil, one of the country’s largest banks, was prepared to help finance Neymar’s new contract with Santos. Banco do Brasil also happens to be state-run. In the end a private bank stepped in, albeit with with an extensive sponsorship deal that may further complicate a future move for the player.
Beyond means though is the possibility of revolutionizing Brazilian soccer. In most countries, the United States included, clubs run their own league, sharing some of the power with the national federation. In Brazil though, state federations have disproportionately high influence in the structure of the game. The result is that major clubs in Brazil spend January through May participating in state leagues against tiny clubs. Imagine the Lakers having to spend the offseason playing semi-pro and amateur teams, with even the right to stay in the NBA on the line and you get a sense of the idea. One hope is that as the big clubs gain the financial might to challenge European teams for players, they will also gain the political power to break away from the state championships and create a national league and cup system similar to the rest of the world.
What does all this have to do with college sports? For starters, one athlete in a different hemisphere under a totally different set of rules has encapsulated many of the issues and debates facing college athletics. How much should governments invest in or interfere with athletic teams? Should programs be run to maximize the success of a few teams or athletes or to provide as many opportunities as possible (Santos shut down its women’s team and its futsal team, a form of indoor soccer, just to pay Neymar)? How much of how a program is run or control over an athlete’s career should be ceded to third parties (or the club itself)? How important is regional vs. national interest? And what is the responsibility of the haves to maintain some degree of competitive equity or even engage in competition at all with the have nots?
Collegiate athletics can also learn from the fact that one athlete, simply by being a great athlete, could potentially cause massive change to how a sport operates in an entire country. It would be like if LeBron James had decided to go to college and stay for four years, so the entire structure of the NCAA was changed to accommodate him. The main difference might be that while there might not be true alternatives in either Brazil or the United States for Brazil’s professional leagues and college athletics, in the US there are at least potential alternatives, like professional youth leagues or amateur development operated by national governing bodies.
Could it happen here? The short answer is: it depends. The long answer is that it will and already has, in bits and pieces. Athletes who are “too good” for college have been a problem solved in a myriad of ways across the many sports the NCAA oversees. Generally they’re presented with a choice: amateurism and education in the NCAA or payment and training in a professional setting. We’ve yet to have a major showdown between a once-in-a-generation athlete who desperately wants to go to college and an NCAA not designed to accommodate him or her (given that this would almost certainly be a football or men’s basketball athlete, probably him).
Because potential alternatives exist, it would require abandoning the assumption that colleges, backed by state and federal taxpayers and committed to different missions should be involved in the development of elite athletes and asking the hard question about whether they should. An American Neymar is almost a certainty in the foreseeable future (15–20 years). But rather than moving the NCAA and its members forward, the major change could be the end of elite, commercial college athletics.