The game is over and the confetti has fallen, leaving the field awash in purple and yellow, but Odell Beckham Jr. is only just starting to celebrate. The son of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is back at his alma mater, standing on the field where he once received standing ovations. Now, it’s his turn to show support.
He turns to a tall, fresh-faced man still dressed in the pads and uniform of the LSU Tigers. It’s Justin Jefferson, the talented junior wide receiver who leapt his way to the school’s single-season reception record. The 21-year-old is coasting off the high of nine catches and 100 yards, but Jefferson’s lips spread into a grin as OBJ reaches into his pants.
He pulls out a thick wad of fresh bills, then swiftly cuts off a fluttering bundle of cash. And with a thunderous, brotherly clap of the two men’s palms, the gift is exchanged. “I told you I got you,” Jefferson says. “I told you I got you. I told you I got you. Ya already know that.”
LSU won the college football championship on Monday, and it took all of two more days for the school to fall into scandal. The initial video with Jefferson went viral before being made private on Twitter, but it was Heisman-winning quarterback Joe Burrow who really burst the dam when he revealed, in a podcast published on Wednesday, that OBJ handed out “real cash.”
“I’m not a student-athlete anymore, so I can say yeah,” Burrow said on Barstool Sports’ Pardon My Take.
LSU, naturally, backpedaled by noting in a statement that the bills were supposed to be “novelty money” and that it would investigate, but it marked an absurd end to a golden college football season for the Tigers. Given that the people on record as having received money are all off to the NFL Draft, it’s unclear what kind of crime LSU committed in the eyes of the NCAA, which governs all college sports. Its bylaws prohibit cash as one of a million “impermissible benefits” that aren’t to be given directly to players, but given by the meme response on social media, it doesn’t look like anyone really cares.
To be honest, I hope the money was real. I hope a bunch of current “student-athletes” got some bills, too, not just Burrow and Co. And I hope they never admit it, and never give it back. Why? Consider it a tip for their efforts in the national championship. We probably all should be tipping our favorite college athletes, anyway.
Consider the landscape. We’re still a long way from actually compensating college athletes for the billions in revenue they generate for their schools; research suggests some stars have a fair market value in the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. This doesn’t even include the money football players could be making if they could market their likenesses. Rams superstar Todd Gurley couldn’t even sell a few autographed cards without getting suspended by the NCAA in 2014. Countless athletes have gone broke while spending their most valuable, healthy years in a mandatory amateur sports cartel rather than in the pro ranks.
We tip service workers even if it’s “voluntary” because we understand that the system is inherently unfair, given that anyone labeled a tipped worker receives a lower minimum wage despite the large value of their work. How is this any different? We sit on our collective couch, watching 18-to-21-year-olds break their bodies on the field (sometimes literally) with full knowledge that they’re not getting paid squat, no matter how many stupid Dr. Pepper commercials we sit through. It’s the equivalent of getting solid service, receiving the bill and just ignoring the tip line for your poor server because hey, wage inequality ain’t your problem, baby!
Now, the trick is to not get caught, in part because you’re not Odell Beckham Jr. and mostly because you don’t want the recipient of your tips to get suspended for your indiscretion. Many diehard supporters of young college athletes have gotten into trouble for their, err, enthusiastic forms of giving, whether it’s 2 Live Crew legend Uncle Luke’s Miami exploits or the agent that gave Reggie Bush a house and a car. But don’t worry: There’s a whole universe of shady generosity to navigate, and the NCAA’s inability to catch all but the most egregious donors has kept that universe growing strong.
By the rulebook, “boosters” — defined broadly as anyone who has given money or supported an athletic department in a litany of ways — aren’t allowed to give cash, loans, gifts, discounts and a million other things to student-athletes. And generally, student-athletes cannot accept “extra benefits” from people if those same benefits aren’t available to members of the general public.
But how can the NCAA really know whether a person at the bar sidling up to an athlete is a booster? How can it really discern whether cash is trading hands? Can it even track a casual $25 sent through Venmo?
I’m hardly the first to ask the question. Indeed, it’s why the infamous network of “bag men” exists for boosters — because it’s actually pretty easy to keep your hands clean of evidence as long as you don’t Nevin Shapiro yourself into infamy and screw over the school you love. As writer Steven Godfrey detailed in a long-form piece for Banner Society, the wide world of football-loving boosters means there’s a lot of happy cash being thrown around, from $500 to $50,000, in the name of getting the best recruits and the best reputation. In short, the first rule of bag-man club is to shut the hell up and work on the margins, staying away from typical booster glad-handing with the team. The second rule is to only work in cash.
“When things are done correctly, there’s no proof more substantial than one man’s word over another. That allows for plausible deniability, which is good enough for the coaches, administrators, conference officials and network executives,” Godfrey wrote. “I can’t show you that money, and neither can anyone else. You might think you see the money — a flash of $20 bills all over some kid’s Instagram update — but that’s just money.”
Actually becoming a bag man takes a lot of work — you need to prove you’re not the kind of guy to snitch, are reliably dedicated to the team and have some cash to burn without looking flashy (around $15,000 is the sweet spot, according to Godfrey’s anonymous source). But what the status quo proves is that it wouldn’t be all that hard for us to figure out a safe, secure way to pay our favorite athletes ourselves. We pay to access our favorite Patreons and OnlyFans accounts — why not this? Isn’t this what decentralized cryptocurrency was made for?
Keep in mind that the NCAA deserves this, as perhaps one of the most evil institutions in modern American history. And if the thought of slipping illicit cash to a bunch of young men and women weirds you out, well, it’s not much weirder than being implicitly part of both the NCAA’s abuses and the shadow-money market that got your new favorite baller to your alma mater.
All of this hot talk would be hypocritical without me putting my money where my words are. So, with all respect to my alma mater, the University of Southern California, my DMs are open for any active footballers who want some lunch money Venmo’d to them. It’s not exactly an NFL superstar slipping out the Benjamins, I know. It was also a pretty awful season, to be honest.
But hey — we shouldn’t be cutting tips based on service, so…