Photo: Sierra Sellers

Money is central to the world of college sports. But where exactly should that money go?

Paid to Play

January 10, 2020

The debate over the long-standing rule that the NCAA doesn’t condone the paying of college athletes has become a hot topic of late. The debate was sparked when the Fair Pay to Play Act was introduced on the floor of California’s senate, and its eventual passage into law by the Governor. Recently, the NCAA held a meeting in which they agreed that college athletes could make money from their likeness starting in 2021, but that each division would be responsible for coming up with their own guidelines for that compensation. The NCAA also reaffirmed during that meeting that the athletes could not be treated as employees of the school, and that there must be a “clear distinction between college and professional opportunities.”

It’s All About Their Bottom Line

I wish that I could say that the NCAA cared about the athletes that play under it. They don’t. Plainly and simply, the organization that claims to protect the amateurism that has been gone for nearly a half-century exploits young men and women out of their market value as an effort to support its own bottom line and the bottom lines of the programs that it props up. Here’s why they finally bent on their firm stance ‘supporting amateurism,’ allowing players to profit off of their own likeness. The NCAA realized that it cannot exist without big-name players. Why shouldn’t players like Zion Williamson or Kyler Murray, who helped make their respective sports must-watches on national TV, have profited from the value they provided to the NCAA, or even their own market value?

The NCAA has devised a system that exploits athletes that dedicate twenty hours of physical practice (not to mention the hours and hours of film review, workouts, etc.) out of fair compensation for their hard work and their personal value, as well as the value that those athletes provide to the NCAA and the corporations that support it. Many make the argument that scholarships the athletes receive serve as payment for the players. Colleges paying athletes with scholarships to that college is equivalent to McDonald’s paying their employees with McDonald’s gift cards, and not allowing them to earn anything else. The athletes that dedicate their time deserve to be paid for that dedication.

The NCAA is also letting themselves get so caught up in making sure that some players and some programs stick to amateurism, that they’re forgetting to take care of some of the issues that they were established to take care of. The Memphis Tigers took on Alcorn State in November, sitting star center James Wiseman as a result of the NCAA revoking Wiseman’s already approved eligibility over assistance he received from the then-head coach at East High school Penny Hardaway. According to Geoff Calkins of the Daily Memphian, Alcorn State did not have a trainer traveling with them to the game. When an Alcorn State player went down, he was taken to the Memphis bench and treated by the university’s trainers. The NCAA has become so caught up in policing the thin veil of amateurism that still exists within the sport, they’re forgetting to make sure that small programs have the resources that they need.

Tua Tagovailoa has been one of the biggest names in not only collegiate football, but the sport of football in its entirety since he came out as a backup during the College Football Playoff final for Alabama in 2018. Now, Tua is out indefinitely with the same injury that ended the career of all-time legend Bo Jackson.

The difference between the two? Bo Jackson got paid, and got long term compensation from the NFL, thanks to the work of the player’s association. Tua’s already lost a lot of potential earnings, as his NFL future is marred now that he’s considered damaged goods. But to quite literally add insult to injury, since the NCAA does not qualify Tua as an athlete, he will not receive any healthcare or compensation from Alabama or the NCAA if his injury lingers.

Another argument that seems to resurface often in opposition to the fair compensation of college athletes is that as there would be differences in how much money they would be receiving through endorsements, which would create locker room tension, as one player would be worth more than another. That already exists. The massive amount of media coverage that the NCAA obtains through its various television deals that totaled a billion dollars in revenue for the organization last year created a gap in the locker room via media coverage a long time ago.

In all likelihood, Drew Swinney realizes that he is less valuable to not only Clemson’s football program, but also to the university itself and the football community at large than his teammate Trevor Lawrence. The big names of college basketball, football, hockey, etc, are always going to be more valuable than the rest of the team.

It’s the same reason why Drew Brees gets paid 6.8 million dollars, and his Saints teammate Dan Arnold gets paid just over three hundred and fifty thousand. Drew Brees is more valuable to the Saints, the City of New Orleans and the NFL than Dan Arnold, and their respective compensations reflect that. Why should athletes, who are spending much of their physical prime competing and working in the NCAA, not be allowed to collect their value based on how much demand there is for their likeness?

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More Money, More Problems

Yes, I agree that it would be great to see the return of an EA Sports NCAA football, as I have been a Madden fan for many years. However, I don’t think that allowing the change brought on by California’s new law is a good idea. Sure, the realm of college athletics is a business, pure and simple, but performance in a sport is a team effort, so why should some popular players get paid when their peers on the team don’t? After all, the most popular college players who would profit from this law are likely going to be high draft picks anyway where they will make millions right off the bat. While the NCAA doesn’t pay players directly, it provides a fair platform for players to prove that they should be paid in the pros.

The new law in California will not only cease to keep things fair, but it will cause a cascade of issues that will have unintended consequences farther down the line. The status quo has been working for years, and if something works just fine, why try to change it?

People need motivation to do anything, and for professional athletes, it’s that the better they play, the more money they get. If college players also get paid, then that takes away from what makes it so special on draft day when an athlete becomes a professional and realizes their dream. I watch the NFL draft every year and would hate for part of the magic of that night to disappear because players are already getting paid coming
into their professional sport. Plus, they may become more complacent if they think they don’t have to earn the money by giving their all at every practice. No one wants to watch a lazy player on their team, fan or coach. I’m concerned that players would become complacent and distracted if they were being handed money and told how great they were because of that.

In addition to this, aren’t college players getting paid already through their scholarships? Getting a free ride to college is essentially getting indirectly paid to come to a college, with D1 athletes getting special benefits such as tutors. These academic services cost money, and the players getting paid more doesn’t make any sense. Besides, I am sure that many players get under the table deals anyway to come to certain top athletic departments.

Isn’t it kind of absurd that athletes are paid millions because they can play a game better than others? So this new law will go ahead and pay these kids money now when they will get deals will eventually go pro and make millions anyway, because the ones who would profit from their likeness are the ones who are popular, talented and shoe-ins to get drafted. The passage of the law only throws more money at this system that on a fundamental level doesn’t seem to make much sense.

To add to my financial issues with this law, it would allow players to draw money away from the revenue of the college athletic department. One misconception many people have is that the athletic department receives all of the revenue gained from the advertising and ticket sales from its games. According to Ben Kercheval’s article on Bleacher Report, Chris Smith of said, “While many athletic departments have to take loans from their parent universities just to break even, Alabama’s athletic department sends money the other way. Last year it contributed around $6.5 million to the university to provide for faculty support and non-athletic scholarships.” Based on Smith’s data, sending money to individual players would draw money away that is actually benefiting the academics of the university, making it harder for schools to provide services and scholarships on the academic side of things.

And finally, these laws would shift students’ attention from academics. How do we know that they won’t devote all their time to sports and then be left with nothing when they don’t get drafted? This shift of focus could be an unintended yet dangerous side effect of the passing of the law.

I don’t know for sure what will happen when this law goes into effect, I don’t think anyone really does. But the way things play out will have significant ramifications for not only the college athletes themselves, but the college community as a whole.

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