Steven Godfrey’s four-part docuseries on the NCAA’s investigation into Ole Miss starts with a series of questions, but it ends with a harrowing warning: This will happen again.
Godfrey’s project is a two-hour lesson on what can happen when the labor force for a billion-dollar institution is paid only on the black market.
The larger story, and its many twists and turns, have been well-documented.
But what Godfrey does so effectively is highlight the NCAA Enforcement’s selective focus in its investigation of the Rebels, and what that ultimately means.
The NCAA’s lead sources were Lindsey Miller, the vindictive stepfather of Laremy Tunsil and Lewis, a player at an in-state rival school. Under normal circumstances, the NCAA wouldn’t use such flimsy sources in an investigation of this magnitude.
“I think [NCAA Enforcement] has to maintain a certain image of working the beat of showing that they are doing something,” Godfrey told SEC Country by phone on Sunday. “I think in this instance, they bent a lot of the bylaws so badly because they were trying to accomplish a goal of creating a scarecrow in Ole Miss for the rest of the schools that they know are cheating all the time.”
And make no mistake — they know about the other schools who are cheating.
There’s a scene in the fourth episode of the docuseries where Godfrey and others at SB Nation are poring over private transcripts from Lewis’ testimony to the NCAA. But there are a few redacted items — the other schools that Lewis says he took money from.
The underlying message: The NCAA doesn’t want you to know that they know this kind of corruption is happening all over college football. And they really don’t want you to know that there’s a relatively cheap solution: Pay the players a fair stipend.
NCAA officials ranging from coaches, to athletic directors to presidents have always dismissed the idea of paying players for various reasons. Chief among them? It would be too expensive to pay 85 scholarship players every year.
But the numbers don’t bear that out. In theory, it would only cost about $4.25 million to pay a full team of scholarship players an annual stipend of $50,000. That’s a drop in the bucket for schools such as Texas A&M, who reportedly generated $194 million in revenue in 2015-16. At least 70 different programs generated at least $40 million in that year, per that report.
Of course, the listed expenses for college football programs are almost just as high. And there’s a reason for that, according to Godfrey.
“The athletic director knows that if there’s money laying around, their argument is going to lose what little credibility that I think it has,” he said. “If they literally showed every year on their balance sheet, ‘hey we’ve just got all this money laying around,’ well then the outcry [to pay players] would be even stronger.
“So what do they do with all that money? They put it into as many facilities as they can. They put it into as much marketing as they can. They put it into uniforms, player development facilities. Anything that’s construction-based, they dump the money back in because it all fuels their business.”
The issue of paying college players isn’t about money — at least not in the era of multimillion-dollar TV deals and revenue sharing. It’s about power.
“The numbers have never been the issue,” Godfrey said. “The bottom line is this. The labor force is so important in sports. You look at the power that every other players union has. Major League Baseball, NFL, NBA and NHL. They’ve all gone through work stoppages. And think about college sports and how many teams there are.
“So you would be giving a substantial amount of power to a substantial amount of people. There’s a pretty good rule of thumb in America that if you have power, you don’t give it up easily.”
Until the NCAA recognizes that and sets up a system for these players to be paid above board, nothing will change. Nothing has changed.
“This is always going to happen,” Godfrey said. “It’s happening right now. Nothing about this case stopped anyone’s compulsion to do this, even in the state of Mississippi.
“The motivation is always going to be there to hand the kids money. And the motivation is always going to be there on the kid’s part to take the money.”
As long as nothing inspires change, people such as Tunsil and Lewis will continue to be at risk.
So about that harrowing warning at the outset — college football fans have the ability to ask for change. In the age of social media and an era where fan service is a high priority, athletic directors and other officials likely would be compelled to listen — should fans decide to speak up.
“I think fans have more agency than they realize,” Godfrey said. “If they truly want their players to be compensated in a fair manner, being vocal about it to those in power at your respective institutions, I think that can go a long way.”