As a medium-height, average-sized, not-quite-athletic guy, nobody ever paid me to play sports. This, along with not being a rock star, are two of the great disappointments of my life.

But for the physically gifted young men and women who attend big universities on athletic scholarship, the dream of being a high-payed, adored-by-the-masses professional athlete is very real. And the sports agents who represent them in their business dealings will do just about anything to sign them up as clients.

Of course, anytime a phrase like “will do anything to” is part of a discussion, there’s a problem. And last week I saw an episode of HBO’s Real Sports that vilified the sports agents who break rules accepted in their business that dictate what can and can’t be done to entice young athletes to become your client. Then this article on the subject ran in The New York Times.

There’s a problem here. And “entitlement” by the athletes, while being one, and flaunting of the rules by the agents, which isn’t OK, isn’t it.

Why aren’t these kids paid to play their sports?

Don’t bother with the old “they’re amateurs and it lessens the spirit of cooperation” argument; that one went away a couple of decades ago when even the International Olympic Committee gave up on it. And yes, there’s a pretty clear understanding that a university gives you an education plus free room and board in exchange for being on their sports team; so the athletes are paid.

But in big-name sports at Division I schools, there’s an absolute fortune of money being passed around, and to believe that young men who are a year or two away from being paid tens of millions of dollars should patiently wait their turn is naive. Simple as that.

Time for business change? You bet.

Because there are so many different groups with different interests in this, there’s no clear, quick, and easy path. The colleges wants what they want. The players do, too. The agents (who might be the bad guys here or might be the change facilitators making business change come along) have a stake, of course. And that leaves out the professional sports teams that these athletes will one day play for, the leagues those teams belong to, and the NCAA, who oversees the actions of the colleges while the kids are still “amateurs”.

They all have different agendas. They all have the right to something. Increasingly they all see all of the others as the enemy.

Coopetition, anyone?

I’ve pointed out the benefit of coopetition in a changing business environment a few time before. Like any business change it’s not the easiest thing to take on, both because business change is scary and because coopetitiion in particular is the kind of thing that will stop almost anyone in their tracks. Give up control, or money, to someone I compete against? No way!

The funny thing is, in this case nobody is actually competing. The athletes are already at a school, the agents are what they are, and the professional sports teams and leagues are operating pretty much from a monopoly position. And yet they all want to be in charge, with the rallying cry usually being about “protecting the interests of the young atheletes”.

Hogwash. This is about control. Coopetition and control in the traditional sense don’t work well together. And it’s the athletes who are getting screwed over, all right, but not by the agents.

Business change requires a willingness to examine your position, be honest with yourself, and change. May you be so lucky as to be in the position any of these groups are in. Either way: always be willing to look at the way you do things.

Update, 20 November 2010: And the taking money hypocrisy continues: How is it that the NCAA demands its players remain “clean” but then imposes financial penalties (actual fines!) on them to punish them for taking money?

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