CLEMSON – The most important signature captured by Dabo Swinney rests on his desktop, protected under glass along with other mementos and photographs.
On the back of a business card is written: "I, C.J. Spiller, agree to visit CU on the 13th of Jan. 06." Spiller also signed the card at the behest of the persistent Clemson receivers coach. The agreement landed Swinney a star and Spiller a free education.
But what if Swinney the recruiter, and Spiller the prospect, had negotiated a contract in a free market context.
What is Spiller worth?
What is the value of star South Carolina linebacker Eric Norwood?
Debated amongst college reformers, academics, politicians and the NCAA is what should they be worth.
Under an NFL-style revenue sharing system, Spiller would make $4.2 million this season. Norwood's compensation would be even greater – $5.1 million - thanks to South Carolina's membership in the cash-rich SEC.
"I never thought about it," said Spiller, who returned for his senior season. "It's nothing you can control. You just come here and enjoy your time. A scholarship itself means so much to me because it saved my parents a whole lot of money."
The NCAA has tax-exempt status. Late NCAA President Myles Brand noted only a few athletic departments generate profit.
But as TV deals increase in value, as programs create NFL-style personal seat licenses, some see college football and men's basketball as less about education and more about entertainment.
Perhaps the loudest voice calling for reform is Sonny Vaccaro.
The controversial Vaccaro signed Michael Jordan to his first Nike contract, and brokered shoe deals that made college coaches rich. His summer basketball camps helped prep stars go straight to the NBA. But in 2007 Vaccaro left his position as a Reebok shoe executive in part to begin a crusade against the NCAA, to give a voice to college athletes who he says should have representation and bargaining rights.
"[Spiller] is really good," Vaccaro said. "Without him [Clemson] wouldn't be playing for the ACC title. We all know that. He and his teammates generate millions of dollars for the ACC and Clemson.
"They are more like the Gladiators than in any other formal American endeavor. Fellas who read your article love going to the arena. They love watching Marcus Aurelius fight the lions. They are an exhibition, and that's not right unless they are allowed to maximize their earning potential."
South Carolina football generated $56 million during the 2008-09 fiscal year.
Clemson football produced $46 million – 75 percent of all athletic revenue.
No. 28 jerseys are sold.
Endorsement deals are signed, and the biggest paydays come from television – Clemson will be showcased on ESPN and ABC at least six times this season.
South Carolina benefits from the SEC's new 15-year, $3 billion television contracts with ESPN and CBS.
In addition to earning their market value, Vaccaro says recognizable players like Spiller and Norwood should be allowed to sign their own endorsement deals, even if the compensation is deferred.
His opponents say there is an educational purpose and altruistic value in amateurism. Football revenues subsidize and allow for large, diverse athletic departments. Some liken athletes to non-compensated student researches whose work allows universities to attract funding through grants.
Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips played college football at Arkansas, and has a doctorate and law degree.
"In the end [college football] does serve an education purpose," Phillips said.
Vermont law professor Michael McCann, an expert in sports law, was part of Maurice Clarett's legal team, when the former Ohio State running back challenged the NFL's age requirement.
To McCann, the bigger issue is college football players' inability to enter NFL at their discretion, due to the league's collective bargaining agreement requiring athletes be three years removed from their high school graduating class to enter the league.
As for sweeping college football reform, McCann said there is neither the public nor political will for what
"I think even if there is an injustice that a player could be making more money or could be compensated it's not enough of an injustice," McCann said. "I imagine being a college star is a pretty good life.
"It's not as if they are suffering."
While McCann notes Congress has threatened to hold hearings on the NCAA's tax-exempt status, he believes there is too much invested in college athletics to implement broad change.
"It doesn't always seem like a just system," McCann said. "But people are wary of the idea of changing it. I imagine there are members of Congress who are from districts that have popular college sports teams and don't want to be criticized for proposing something that could make college sports less appealing."
Too many, the consequences of compensating college players would seem quite unappealing.
"How do you choose how players are paid? Are they all paid the same?" McCann said. "Do you have a tiered system based sort of like a market? Then you can be creating stars who get paid a lot of money. I could see why some people find that inconsistent with college model of amateurism.
"[If revenue-producing athletes were paid] colleges would start cutting sports considerably. You would start seeing reduction in the size of athletic departments…. Particularly male team sports that are expensive and don't generate a lot of revenue."
Some would argue college football players have a case as their current no-compensation arrangement violates competition law.
"I don't think it would work under current interpretations of antitrust law," said McCann, who added even if such efforts failed they could engender reform.
Title IX - which requires gender equality and equal access to university resources - would also require amendment, but there is little political will to alter the law.
Still, Vaccaro says he is not speaking to the generation in power.
His message is to the next generation.
He has toured the country for three years speaking to students at dozens of colleges. He speeches center on the ills of the NCAA – including the unintended consequence of a black market, where players are illegally compensated.
"The revolution starts with young people," Vaccaro said. "It starts with the thing trying to be cut out of life - journalists, free speech. Go to China, Tibet, Iran it's all about free speech. …. It may not happen tomorrow or next week but it will happen. It will be demanded.
"What happens when kids say ‘I'm not going on the field for the Fiesta Bowl or Final Four?' It just takes a group one time to shut down the mechanism of a nationally televised game. You'll see it."
What are they worth?
What would players in Saturday’s rivalry be worth in an open market? Listed below is the value of South Carolina and Clemson players based on an NFL-style revenue sharing model. NFL players receive 58 percent of all revenues. To determine how to distribute such hypothetical receipts amongst players, we took the average payroll distributions of top the 20 compensated players from the last four Super Bowl participants (Steelers, Cardinals, Patriots, Giants). Those percentages allocations are listed below. For the value ranking, players were each treated as hypothetical free agents, taking into account remaining eligibility.
$56,617,334 – Total football revenue 2008-09
$32,838,053 - Players’ share based off NFL revenue-sharing model
$46,222,901 – Total football revenue for 2008-09
$26,809,282 – Players’ share based off NFL revenue-sharing model
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