If we could turn the calendar back to 2008 and tell Tim Tebow that winning the Heisman Trophy would give him the opportunity to put $2 million in his bank account as a spokesman for Nike, McDonald’s and American Express, he apparently not only would have turned it all down but would have considered it an affront to the college experience that he remembers as so pure and innocent.
That’s essentially the argument Tebow made Friday on ESPN’s “First Take” when he blasted the idea of college athletes being able to profit off their name, image and likeness, which has been front and center in the national debate this week thanks to California lawmakers passing the so-called Fair Pay to Play Act, which puts the onus on the NCAA to overhaul its rulebook or fight it out in court.
And it’s an argument you’re going to hear a lot as this plays out over the following months and years — that, somehow, giving college athletes an opportunity to make money based off their own popularity will corrupt the entire enterprise.
“I know we live in a selfish culture where it’s all about us, but we’re just adding and piling it on to that where it changes what’s special about college football and we turn it into the NFL where who has the most money that’s where you go,” said Tebow. “That’s why people are more passionate about college sports than they are about the NFL. That’s why the stadiums are bigger in college than the NFL because it’s about your team, about your university, about where my family wanted to go, about where my grandfather had a dream of seeing Florida win an SEC championship and you’re taking that away so young kids can earn a dollar. And that’s not where I feel like college football needs to go.”
Give Tebow credit for this: He can sell college athletics’ schmaltz with the best of them, no matter how hollow the sentiment really is.
Look, it’s is easy to understand how someone like Tebow — whose popularity has endured well beyond his relevance as an athlete and who has been privileged in ways most of the people he played football with never were — sees college football as a citadel of chastity in a materialistic world.
The fundamental problem is this: College athletics has already been corrupted by money and greed on every level. The only people who have been left out of that pursuit are the athletes.
You can’t say with any ounce of intellectual honesty that it’s OK for coaches to pursue $9 million contracts and agents to leverage schools into silly contract extensions and athletics directors to rake in bonuses earned via the performance of their players but that somehow allowing name, image and likeness rights would be the thing pushes college athletics into the abyss of professionalism.
Sorry, Tim, but it’s been there for years already. And finally, more and more people are waking up to the reality that the system has to change.
If Tebow as a college athlete had been able to cash in on his fame and popularity, what would have fundamentally changed about his experience? Would he have no longer felt a responsibility to represent his school and work as hard as his teammates? Would he have cared less about winning a national title or would his grandfather have been less proud to see him success? Would he not have wanted to go play quarterback in the NFL just as badly?
Of course none of that would have happened. The only thing different about Tebow’s life is that he would have made more money.
And for a lot of the people Tebow was teammates with at Florida, college was, in fact, the most marketable time of their careers. Would they have made hundreds of thousands of dollars? Probably not. But would they have been able to make enough via endorsements to pay for a car or get some free meals or send something home to their family? Maybe, and why would we want to prevent that just to show fidelity to some nebulous idea of amateurism that people came up with 100 years ago?
There is no virtue in this anymore, especially when everyone around the players is allowed to cash in. And it’s why people like Tebow and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who has said “there’s enough entitlement in this world” when addressing this topic, are tough to take seriously. They view the platform of college sports mostly through their own experience, but they’re the outliers.
The reality is that every category of person in the United States except college athletes is allowed to maximize the opportunities presented them based on who they are. Tebow, who was literally one of the three or four most popular and marketable athletes in the country when he was at Florida, should have been allowed to do that a decade ago.
He never got that chance, but the idea he would have rejected it then and doesn’t want others to have it now is the kind of faux morality we could all do without.