This past weekend’s NFL Draft was the first opportunity for many athletes to finally monetize their talents and be compensated for the vast amount of revenue they have generated over the course of their careers. And make no mistake, they have been generating revenue. Although only 20 athletic departments claim to be turning a profit, this is more due to creative accounting than anything else, with many schools employing a liberal definition of what constitutes a “subsidy.” In reality, the NCAA is a billion-dollar-per-year industry, and is currently cashing in on a $10.8 billion television contract for its basketball tournament and a $7.3 billion contract for its football playoff.
For those drafted, a big payday is finally in sight. But for most revenue-generating athletes, this is not the case. Less than 2% of NCAA athletes go on to be drafted to play professionally, and of those the average professional football career is only 3.5 years. Admittedly, the percentage is higher for Division I athletes. In football, for example, the number goes up to 10% if you include only players from the Power Five conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, PAC-12, and SEC). But that still leaves 90% who won’t make it to the pros, risking potentially life-altering injuries generating revenue that they will never have a chance to see.
The NCAA’s argument against paying players is that doing so would destroy the sanctity of college athletics as an amateur sport: college players aren’t professionals; they are students doing it for the love of the game. But the definition of amateurism has changed a great deal over the years. In the purest sense, an athletic scholarship is a form of compensation that used to be considered a blatant violation of this ideal (and still is in the Ivy League). If you look far enough back, so was training and receiving coaching! What this moralizing argument is really meant to do, though, is to protect the business interests of the NCAA, who would stand to lose a lot of money if they had to share a piece of the pie with anyone else. After all, if the NCAA were truly invested in the amateur ideal, then they would hold themselves to the same standard and refuse to profit from collegiate athletics at all (and certainly not sign multi-billion dollar television deals)!
But even at its inception, the term “student-athlete” was invented by the NCAA not to uphold the purity of amateurism, but to deny workers compensation to injured athletes and their families in court. However, there is little doubt that a sizable portion of Division I athletes are in school primarily for sports and serve functionally as employees of the school. They are recruited for their athletic abilities, get preferential treatment in admissions, must sign contracts prior to enrolling in school, work year-round for 40-50 hours per week, and are directed into courses that do not conflict with their practice schedule and that are designed to keep them eligible. For their trouble, they are granted free tuition, textbooks, and housing. And the latest scandals at Syracuse and North Carolina demonstrate that schools are already compromising their academic integrity to keep athletes eligible and to gain a competitive advantage by compensating them under the table (and have been for a very long time).
Therefore, the argument becomes one of degree, not of kind: athletes are already paid in the form of free tuition, something that thousands of debt-strapped college students would kill to have. But just because you are being compensated doesn’t mean you are being compensated fairly, and just because this doesn’t strictly make it slavery as some have suggested doesn’t mean that athletes aren’t being taken advantage of. After all, even slaves got free food and housing.
As it stands, current NCAA rules arbitrarily cap player earnings at the price of a scholarship, even if that cap has slightly risen among Power Five schools to include the full cost of attendance. Even the recent ruling against the NCAA in the Ed O’Bannon case (currently under appeal) capped player earnings at $5,000. Players are still prevented from being paid anything more than that (regardless of their actual market value), and they are still prohibited from making money off of their own likenesses via sponsorships and endorsements. Athletes aren’t even allowed to take on summer jobs to make outside money on their own! This is, of course, even as the NCAA does the exact same thing by selling players’ rights, officially licensed gear, and lucrative endorsement deals.
This past season, University of Georgia running back Todd Gurley became the most recent victim of the NCAA cracking down on players for selling their own property when he was suspended four games for selling his autograph. Georgia fans might also remember when wide receiver AJ Green was similarly suspended for selling his own jersey. And this, above everything else, proves that the NCAA isn’t really concerned with treating athletes like any other student pursuing an extracurricular activity; they are just trying to make sure that they get their cut. For example, my brother currently goes to school for music, but he is in no danger of losing his financial aid or being declared ineligible from school ensembles for taking paid gigs in his spare time. Indeed, the very idea would be laughable!
Given the value of Division I athletics, many players could earn more than the value of a scholarship if they weren’t barred from doing so. And given the graduation rates for student-athletes, it seems that free tuition is something of a false prize. Many players are probably more concerned with making the pros than they are actually interested in a college education, rendering their college experience little more than an unpaid internship.
Which leads to another problem: athletes are forced to attend college (and work for free) before they can go pro, again due to arbitrary rules, set in place this time by professional sports leagues. The NFL prevents players from entering the draft until they are three years removed from high school (even after an unsuccessful challenge in court by former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett in 2004), and the NBA requires that players be at least one year removed from high school. Once again, these rules serve little purpose other than to protect the business interests of those already in power. By forcing players to attend college, professional owners save money on player development, as it creates a de-facto minor league among the college ranks. And players unions, by definition comprised of players already in the league, support these rules because limiting the influx of new workers (and limiting their pay) benefits veterans who might otherwise lose their roster spots to younger prospects.
This is why simply reforming the NCAA cannot solve the problem of player compensation on its own. Changes need to be made to both the NCAA and professional sports leagues to create the most equitable solution. First and foremost, arbitrary work rules for professional leagues need to be abolished. If leagues want their own minor league systems, then they will have to establish them on their own, much like the system already in place for professional baseball. (And believe me, they will, because the alternative is to waste roster spots on undeveloped talent. And trust, someone will take that prospect if they have the opportunity.)
In addition to expanding the avenues to professionalism, players should be able to profit from their own likenesses in college (especially since this ostensibly costs the school nothing), much like Olympic athletes today. The Olympics, too, used to be an amateur-only event until very recently, with players barred from competition if they had ever been compensated, directly or indirectly, for their athletic abilities. But today, Olympians can sign endorsement deals and compete professionally and the integrity of the competition has not been degraded. In fact, the games are more popular now than ever before!
Paying players doesn’t necessarily have to be mandatory, it just shouldn’t be illegal. Whether or not players are entitled to a salary from revenues and TV deals could still be up for debate (although they still probably deserve it, since people are still running a business purely off their backs), but they should at least have the right to bargain for it via unionization. After all, money could easily be diverted from inflated coaching salaries and exorbitant facilities budgets, both of which are only as high as they are because schools can’t currently pay players directly. But with going pro available as an actual option, at least college players would be forfeiting that money by choice. And at least student-athletes would be attending college because they wanted to, not because they had to.
Photo credit: Joe Robbins / Getty Images via SI.com