Friday, November 7, 2014

Marcus Lattimore

There was a good story in Grantland about Marcus Lattimore, the former South Carolina RB who just retired from the NFL after never recovering from a devastating knee injury he suffered in college. Michael Baumann did a good job laying out the quid-pro-quo - Lattimore made a ton of money for South Carolina and not only was he not directly compensated, he ended up losing any chance of making real money in the pro ranks.

He is, however, missing a few steps in the process. I can't speak for what happens at South Carolina, but as someone who went to Texas, I do have some experience with the ways in which players are compensated by big-time state schools. I'm not talking about under the table payments either - I'm talking about the amount of money you can make from your association with the school after you retire from playing.

Former UT players are all over Austin. They have their own restaurants, they work for the school in a ton of various goodwill jobs, they work in the media covering the team. I know Vince Young has a job in the PR department and has done stuff with The Longhorn Network, as has Ricky Williams. Earl Campbell has worked with the athletic department for years. My guess is Marcus Lattimore will be able to eat off USC football for as long as he wants.

Does that make it OK that he's not getting paid cash money for all the revenue he generated for the school? Probably not, but it is something to take into account when you start talking about the relationship between players and the schools. It really is different than playing for a pro sports franchise - when done correctly, it is a life-long connection that pays off for both player and school for the next 40+ years.

You see it all the time at UT. Guys come back to get their degrees after a few years in school and they don't have a lot of money left. NFL money is fast money - it comes at you real quickly, you have a hundred different hands in your pocket trying to get a piece and it's hard to hold on to for too long. The main problem is the structure in which you are paid as a pro athlete, which doesn't tend to encourage solid financial decisions.

In most professions, you start out with a small amount of money and you gradually increase your salary over time, as you move up the ranks and are given more and more responsibility. For the most part, you don't really start to come into money until you are in your 30's, when you are more likely to have a family to support as opposed to supporting a drinking habit in your 20's. It's a career arc that makes sense psychologically.

Me personally, I didn't begin saving money until I was 25. That was about the time I made the connection that just because I made money didn't mean I had to spend all of it. When you have money and you go out a lot, you can always just go out more. Next thing you know, you don't have any more money. I look back on it now and me trying to save money was like trying to keep sand from going through my fingers.

Saving money isn't about the money you make - it's about the money you spend. It doesn't matter how much money you make if you spend it as quickly as you make it. You can make a few million dollars and live a multi-million dollar lifestyle and not have anything in the bank to show for it. If you're a pro athlete, it's hard to keep up with the Joneses when the Joneses are making hundreds of millions of dollars.

The good thing about going to a school like UT, though, is that you always have a place to come home too where people still know your name. Whatever happens to RG3 in the NFL, he will always get love in Waco. It's the same with Vince and Ricky and Colt McCoy and a ton of other guys who made a name for themselves in Austin. Even if you weren't a big name guy, if you played football at UT and you have a degree, you aren't going to starve.

The money you get in your 30's and your 40's - that's slow money. That's the money you build wealth with and save for retirement. A former D1 football or basketball player with a degree can always coach somewhere. It's pretty easy for former athletes to get a job in business, especially in sales and dealing with clients. Media is always an option, although that can be a pretty crowded lane to get into. Point being, the money doesn't stop when you leave school.

None of this makes the NCAA's current business model any more morally defensible, especially with TV contracts in the billions of dollars that are going to force kids to cram extra games into a season for a playoff. They make huge sums of money off these players and then slide that revenue into all sorts of random places that really don't need it. D1 basketball and football subsidizes a cornucopia of Olympic sports that no one cares about.

Nevertheless, there is another side to this story beyond the NCAA is the big, bad wolf. Marcus Lattimore is never going to make the tens of millions that he could have made in an alternative universe where he entered the NFL at 18, but he is going to be made whole. That's a huge element of recruiting too - letting the prospects know they are entering a family that extends way beyond the playing field.

There is something qualitatively different about the relationship between a "student-athlete" and a school and an employee and a pro sports team. When I was younger, I was all for giving these guys as much money as they deserve. As I get older, I'm starting to think the real problem is the NFL and the NBA. If they would stop being Scrooge McDuck-level cheap, they would create their own minor leagues and stop trying to pawn it off on the colleges.

How much money does an NFL team make, really? If you could look beyond their undoubtedly crooked books, I'm guessing it's a positively ungodly sum on an annual basis. They could easily afford to have 2-3 levels of minor leagues for 18-21 years olds, just like they do in baseball. NFL teams are always bitching about how hard it is to develop QB's - how about you do it yourselves? The NCAA isn't stopping you.

The reality of the situation, though, is that Pandora has already opened the Box and there's too much revenue flowing into the college game for them to realistically expect to keep a Chinese Wall up forever between the players and the money. You are not going to see me here crying about how college players getting paid market value is some great crime against humanity, but I do worry that something will be lost in translation.

Here's a good story about this.

I was two years ahead of Kevin Durant at UT, so I didn't know him personally or anything. I did see him around from time to time, though, as it's hard to miss a 6'11 guy walking around campus. The athletic dorm was right in the middle of campus, so no matter where you were, you often ended up walking through Gregory and Jester at some point in the day. For the most part, he was just kind of like any other student.

People knew who he was, sure, but UT is really not a big basketball school at all. Until football season ends, the average student, even if they are a sports fan, isn't paying much attention. I remember going to non-conference games in November and December and paying $15-20 for lower bowl tickets. It wasn't until conference play started to get going that he became a bonafide celebrity and the games became events.

I remember it was sometime in April, after the season had ended, that I was grabbing some food at Jester and I saw him walking around to a few different tables in the cafeteria, saying bye to people. And then I realized that he has to go train for the draft, he can't stay until the end of the semester. Once he leaves here and gets on a plane, his life is never going to be the same. It could have been some shit out of a movie.

What was weird was that the next time he would see most of these people (if he ever saw them again), the relationship would be so different. Instead of being relative equals - they knew of a few of the same girls, they saw it each other at some parties - he would be this worldwide celebrity and the other guy would be some college student. Once he left UT, no one was ever going to treat him like a normal person for a very, very long time.

When he was walking around campus in the fall, people knew who he was, but it was more like in the sense that he was one of the popular kids whom everyone knew. It wasn't like walking down a city street in Seattle or OKC when you are worth tens of millions of dollars and everyone is counting on you to carry the franchise. That's my guess as to why he reps UT so hard so many years later - it's his last connection to a normal life.

Does that mean UT didn't come out way, way, way ahead in that relationship? Of course not. At the same time, I can't say that his one year of college didn't have some value. Nor do I know that throwing a bunch of cash at a bunch of 18-year olds is going to solve all of their problems. There's more to the amateurism discussion than what's typically presented in the media, though I guess that can be said about any topic.

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