The question is not if we should pay college athletes — but how
Acknowledging there is an issue is easy; fixing it is a bit more complicated
It was one of the most anticipated college basketball games of the year — Duke vs North Carolina. Two top-10, powerhouse, and longstanding rival programs that have given us some of the greatest and most memorable college and professional basketball players of all time: Vince Carter, Grant Hill, Sam Perkins, James Worthy, Christian Laettner, Tyler “Psycho T” Hansbrough, and of course, Michael Jordan.
The list goes on and on, and this year, Duke has added one of the more unique and physically imposing individuals to this list: a 6'7, 285-pound specimen with a name built for greatness, Zion Williamson. The hype surrounding any Blue Devils/Tar Heels tilt is always sky-high, but you add a generational talent like Zion to the mix, and you get borderline hysteria. Reported ticket prices were absurd, the national TV crews were in town, and even President Barack Obama showed up to take in the show.
All in all, it was set to be another classic night in Cameron.
And then 33 seconds into the game, Zion went down and the basketball world’s stomach dropped (while processing how the hell a shoe explodes like that).
Although the injury was serious enough to hold him out of the rest of the game (which ended up being an uneventful 16-point win for UNC), thankfully Zion escaped with just a minor knee sprain. But the image of another star college athlete wincing in pain from an apparent knee injury brought to the forefront a much larger issue which has oscillated in and out of the public eye for several years: should college athletes be paid? As for every Zion that escapes with a minor injury, there are dozens that see their professional dreams ruined by a major one.
In an alternate reality, Zion slips, tears his ACL, misses a year, and puts his long-term health and potential earning power in jeopardy. All because he would’ve fallen victim to an outdated, restrictive system that grossly profits off the unpaid labour of these young men and women.
In ancient Rome, gladiators were slaves. These were individuals owned by other human beings that were constantly thrown into life or death battles, while living at the bottom of the social hierarchy. And since they were slaves, they were not formally paid.
However, despite their status (or lack thereof), gladiators were still admired by audiences across the Roman Republic, and later, Empire. The great ones were celebrities, with fans young and old, and were sometimes even viewed as borderline demigods due to their ability to seemingly defy death and wow crowds like generational pop stars with swords. To this day, most people have heard of some of the more famous historical gladiators, like Spartacus, who actually ended up leading a slave rebellion to try and overtake the Roman Republic (and failed).
Being slaves precluded them from making any semblance of a salary; however, they were still often allowed to keep gifts and “tips” from fans for performing well and/or winning competitions.
I personally think college athletes still have it pretty good, and it is a stretch to equate their current situation to gladiators in Ancient Rome, but slaves from 2000 years ago that quite literally risked their lives for the sake of another’s entertainment — albeit against their will — were allowed to make more money than today’s most successful college athletes.
That’s a problem.
So why haven’t we started compensating college athletes in some way?
Well, as in any situation where, through outdated rules and systemic roadblocks, a certain institution attains disproportionate power and has no reason to do anything differently, things don’t change and problematic roots are allowed to fester further. But that doesn’t stop some supposed-pundits from throwing out a handful of other reasons to justify why we shouldn’t pay college athletes. And these arguments are, to put it politely, bullshit:
It goes against the spirit of amateurism!
But what about the pureness of collegiate athletics?!
Paying college athletes will destroy the sport as we know it!
They are getting paid with their free education!
It will ruin camaraderie in locker rooms!
Most of these arguments come from representatives or supporters of the said institution that holds all the power: the NCAA. And like the Roman Republic with Spartacus, the NCAA likes to vanquish any sign of upheaval from its own gladiators before any movement can be meaningfully mobilized.
Now, I do believe there is something to be said about how we as a society have increasingly centred all discussions around money and how to make more of it as individuals, with college athletics being no exception. Twitter exploded after Zion went down, claiming that he shouldn’t play another minute — regardless of if he is ready to play — until he declares for the draft and is eligible to make some money. I personally think this is ridiculous, but ultimately, who am I to tell these athletes — many of whom that come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds — how to live their lives and get their money? No one, that’s who. But someone who also thinks this is ridiculous and chooses to use his much larger platform to spread that message, is former college and NBA great Charles Barkley.
Barkley has long been against paying college athletes, and largely remains in that position to this day, citing how himself and many of the other greats — including his fellow panelists Shaq and Kenny Smith — stayed in college 3–4 years and felt that the free education and once-in-a-lifetime experience to play the game that you love at the collegiate level was more than enough. But the counterpoint to that is that when those guys played, money from TV deals and the machine that is now college sports — and especially basketball — was totally different, so why can’t today’s players that are the engine to this machine get at least a remotely commensurate share of this now-massive pie?
It is hard to give a good answer to that one. Especially when, according to the Knight Commission, the combined revenue for the major conferences increased by a staggering 266% between 2005 and 2015. And that these schools paid a combined $405.5 million to their coaching staffs — approximately 530 individuals — compared to only $179.8 million in scholarships to their football players — just under 5,000 individuals; that’s $765k per coaching staff member versus $36k per college athlete.
There is no debating that the NCAA is not exactly an angel in this scenario, but the holier-than-thou keyboard activist who writes just pay them all already, it is not that complicated doesn’t appreciate how there actually are complicating factors impacting some of the high-level proposals that have been floated over the years.
Before we get into those factors, let’s look at the main options that are out there.
The way I see it, there are four major sources where money for college athletes could come from:
The NCAA; and/or
And within these sources, there are three different general payment mechanisms that could be used to compensate them:
Performance-based payments; and/or
One-time signing bonuses.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these options.
Why not make/let the schools pay them?
Sure, the idea of having schools pay every college athlete sounds great, but how does that look in practice? Do you employ market-based principles, building a system where a five-star recruit who commits to Duke basketball gets $150,000 per year while the equally-decorated volleyball player gets $150? And does that same basketball recruit only get $25,000 if they go to Davidson instead (because Davidson can’t afford to pay top salary)? Does the squash player actually need to pay money to the school to play because their program is losing money?
I’m sure some economist could build a formula that perfectly determines how much a college athlete in any sport at any school should be “worth”, which could theoretically be the foundation of such a system. But here I actually agree with some of the traditionalists that say an approach like this would ruin, or even eliminate, a majority of college sports. Do we want to substitute the current system where no one really wins, for a new system where there are some winners, but even more catastrophic losers?
Most college sports and teams are not profitable. Yes, football and basketball are proven cash cows that pull in millions for many schools, the NCAA, and conferences every year. But what about swimming? Or wrestling? Or even baseball? If rules came into effect that allowed schools to offer salaries to incoming recruits, how long do you think it is before a school permanently pulls funding from its tennis and/or hockey program to offer the next Zion Williamson a life-changing amount of money? My guess would be about as long as it took for Zion to burst through that shoe.
The average college football team already makes more money than the next 35 college sports combined — do we want a world where those next 35 college sports don’t even exist?
The scary part is, I don’t think the hyper consolidation of college sports would be the worst part of a system like this. There is already an unspoken hierarchy in college sports (as the graph below shows) which is in plain sight based on coaching salaries, overall funding, media coverage, attendance, etc. But that has existed for generations and, although the sophomore Olympic wrestler who walks down the hallway unnoticed may feel some type of way about the 9th man on the basketball team being a campus celebrity, it has generally been a non-issue. The more insidious outcome is that youth programs would likely vanish as well. If there are far fewer collegiate programs for certain sports, that will almost definitely trickle down to a lower interest amongst youth, and eventually, lower investment into youth programs; it would be a vicious, downward cycle. And if an athletically-gifted kid has an initial interest in tennis, but their parents know there is no program in the city or that their child could potentially be making a good salary playing basketball in university instead — a much more attainable dream than the NBA — I think it would be naive to expect the parent (or even the kid) to continue pursuing tennis.
All that to say, a market-driven, salary-based system creates perverse incentives (and disincentives) that could have devastating effects on our overall youth and college sports landscape.
This logic applies to school-provided, one-time signing bonuses as well. The under-the-table payments that undoubtedly happen today have already made it an imbalanced recruiting field, but the scale would tip even further if you legitimized this approach, as the bottomless pockets of the big schools could be legally unleashed. Say what you will about the current structure, but I’m sure that the existing rules still at least somewhat limit the shady practice of paying recruits to a certain extent; legalizing it would permanently leave less-endowed schools in the dark.
You also just bring on a whole slew of added complexities with the salary approach, as the possibility of college athletes becoming employees of the school brings forward even more questions. What about labour laws? Could players now be fined? Cut? Traded? Will college athletes now be paying income tax? And how will schools navigate Title IX (the federal law requiring equal opportunity for male and female athletes in proportion to overall campus population and interest) when female sports will almost certainly be the victim in this case?
Although not insurmountable, taken together it is a lot to think through and taking the first step is a big enough hurdle in and of itself.
To this point, it may sound like I am not in favour of paying college athletes, but I do in fact believe that college athletes deserve to be paid — or, at least, deserve the opportunity to be paid if someone is willing to pay them. I just don’t think a competitive salary model and one where the schools are directly involved is the right approach.
I ultimately think we should start by looking at college athletes as Olympians (and many of them already are) and applying pieces of the Olympic model to the college landscape.
A double standard
Olympians have gone through their own wild journey with amateurism, but have made much more progress than the NCAA. Olympians do not get a salary — they live off prize money, sponsorships, and in many cases, part-time jobs. Currently, some college athletes are actually allowed to receive cash bonuses if they medal in international events, like Ohio State wrestler Kyle Snyder who won gold at Rio in 2016 and received $250,000 from the US Olympics Committee as a reward. Now, he isn’t eligible to receive money from endorsements like non-collegiate Olympians, but that is still not a bad payday. Snyder is amongst a handful of college athletes who have been able to win and keep money from non-NCAA events, but this eligibility for external performance-based earnings does not extend to all college athletes — namely, football and basketball players.
Sathya Gosselin, an attorney for an antitrust class action case that argued for former basketball and football players being entitled to financial compensation for the NCAA’s future use of their image after graduation, said it best:
“While we celebrate the accomplishments of individual athletes, exceptions to the NCAA’s prohibition on pay underscore the intellectual poverty of ‘amateurism’ and the deprivations that occur for so many other athletes.”
The NCAA, so often citing its traditions and moral high ground, is incredibly inconsistent with how it defines and treats amateurism. Why can college wrestlers go make $250,000, while basketball players have to sit on their hands and wait? And for those college athletes that are gifted enough (and allowed) to compete at the Olympics, why can’t they cash in on endorsements like their non-collegiate Olympic teammates?
It is all a bit of a mess and any future efforts that are made by the NCAA to properly compensate college athletes should not only focus on the amount of money, but also administrative simplicity so that the system can be both fair and understandable — two key features that it currently lacks.
A multi-faceted and (relatively) simple solution
I believe the best way forward is a hybrid reimbursement framework that is built on three pillars:
A college athlete universal basic income (CA-UBI);
Performance-based bonuses; and
Unrestricted access to endorsements.
1. The CA-UBI
Yes, a lawyer at the most prestigious Manhattan law firm will likely make more than the one that runs a small family practice out of Mobile, Alabama. And yes, a player like Zion Williamson probably contributes more to Duke’s financial success than the freshman walk-on who only plays in garbage time. But from the NCAA’s perspective, all college athletes should be treated (and compensated) equally.
College isn’t meant to operate like the rest of the economy. It is supposed to be a tapestry of different backgrounds and thoughts, where learning opportunities are equal no matter your story. You could be sitting in a class with the son of a Fortune-500 CEO to your left and the daughter of a cashier to your right, and regardless of the job opportunities the son might already have lined up for him via nepotism after graduation, in that moment, in that classroom, they have the same chance to succeed and are held to the same standard. It is a closed ecosystem meant to concurrently prepare and shield young people from the real world that awaits them. That is why, grants and scholarships aside (and in-state versus out-of-state differences), tuition is still largely the same for everyone.
And that is why, in addition to the other items I listed earlier, a market-based salary model just doesn’t feel right. The star quarterback needs to maintain the same GPA as the backup kicker to maintain eligibility. And balancing school with soccer is just as time-consuming as balancing school with basketball. So in the spirit of maintaining what makes college as a whole so unique and special, all of these athletes should receive a modest minimum income to reward their sacrifice and dedication, agnostic of sport or overall individual profile.
The payer of the CA-UBI should be the NCAA or the conferences, or a split between the two, but it definitely should be coming from the entities that profit — and have profited — the most from the product created by these students. If it were schools contributing to the CA-UBI, that would end up being a further tax on students, as there is no doubt that schools would just up their already-sky-high fees to pay for it (instead of doing something logical like cutting back on coaching salaries or ridiculous facility investments).
The CA-UBI is meant to be the foundation of the framework, but is still only one element of a new approach that attempts to balance equity with competition; internal opportunity with external.
2. Performance-based bonuses
The NCAA should not stop at the CA-UBI when it comes to compensating college athletes. Many of the top individual athletes are already allowed to make money if they perform to a certain level on the international stage, it is only fair to extend this opportunity to everyone that competes in the NCAA — regardless of whether you play an individual or team sport. For individuals, this means cash prizes for placing above a certain threshold in specific conference or national tournaments. For teams, this would mean bonuses for winning conference tournaments, or potentially making the Frozen Four in hockey, or the Elite 8 in basketball. These bonuses would then be evenly divvied up amongst all members of that team.
With the CA-UBI providing that base safety net, these performance-based bonuses are a fair way to reward excellence for those that have never had that opportunity before. It is also a way to reward those “tweener” college athletes that are exceptional at the college level, but perhaps are not quite good enough to make it professionally or at the Olympics. Or maybe they play in a sport with little financial upside or opportunity after graduation.
Relative performance should be rewarded equally as well, with efforts to make these payments as even across the various sports as possible. After all, winning the women’s national softball championship is just as impressive as winning the men’s basketball national championship. But one may argue that the fairness piece built into the CA-UBI is enough, so why not make performance-based payments more aligned to the the amount of money that the sport brings in? To that I reiterate, the NCAA should not be in the business of treating college athletes and sports differently by assigning them a relative value. This is one area that I feel they have actually done a good job over the years. Instead of trying to shut down or discourage the operation of unprofitable sports, they have made an effort to keep them going via heavy subsidization from football and basketball profits. That mindset should persist and also extend to the performance-based part of this model. And like the CA-UBI, these bonuses should be paid out by the conferences and the NCAA as these are games and tournaments that they organize, run, and manage TV rights for.
The CA-UBI is a way for the NCAA to say thank you in a general sense, while the performance payments are a way to say congratulations for a job well done — two things that the NCAA has never meaningfully done.
3. Unrestricted access to endorsements
This one, to me, is a no-brainer.
There is at least some logical sense behind the argument that schools shouldn’t be able to pay players, but why should the colleges (or any collegiate institution) be able to block external entities from wanting to pay these students to be affiliated with their brand? They shouldn’t have a monopoly over their earning potential.
Nothing precludes the computer science student on academic scholarship from using their talent to profit off their own app or do contract work for Google to make extra money — and that’s for a student that isn’t bringing in millions via TV deals and merchandise sales.
This is where the 0.01% of college athletes that are destined for stardom can cash in without having the non-sensical waiting period while in school.
But this isn’t just for the stars — this could be a golfer from Arkansas Tech doing a commercial for a local steakhouse, a Florida softball player signing some hats for a nominal fee, or even a UCF kicker trying to make money off YouTube videos.
This is ultimately about lifting ridiculous restrictions from a gifted part of our society that has been held down for too long and allowing them to thrive.
And for the people that say you can’t have a world where one person on a college team is already a multi-millionaire, it will ruin chemistry and create jealousy, I say this: do you think the guys on Duke’s basketball team are oblivious to the fact that Zion is going to be a multi-millionaire in the next 6 months? Do you think Zion is oblivious to this fact? Do you think the timing of this payday impacts how they all feel towards each other at all? Sorry, but I think team chemistry will be just fine.
Some secondary benefits
The framework outlined above is not only a strong proposal for fixing college athlete compensation, but it actually has merit in other areas as well.
Lack of Parity
To varying degrees, people often complain about the top-heavy nature of college sports. We all love a Cinderella story, but they are increasingly rare and it is often the same teams that are in the conversation for a championship every year: Alabama and Clemson for football, Duke and Villanova for men’s basketball, UConn for women’s basketball.
By opening up the rules, this could actually make it a more even playing field. A program’s pedigree probably carries less weight to a sought-after recruit that knows they can be marketable and make instant money wherever they go. I don’t think Nike or Adidas or Under Armour really cares if the next Zion plays for Duke, Wichita State, or St. Bonaventure — he’ll be a lottery pick and social media phenomenon regardless. LeBron played at a high school that hadn’t won a state championship in the 15 years prior to his arrival — did that stop Nike’s courtship or the non-stop media circus surrounding his every move?
This approach should also largely eliminate any under-the-table payments, closing the gap between what the powerhouse schools and the smaller schools can offer, regardless of endorsements.
It may not happen overnight, and the power dynamic may never fully shift, but this gives smart, smaller schools an opportunity to better build up their reputation and competitiveness year-over-year.
An ever-topical discussion in the basketball world is about what to do with the infamous “one-and-done” rule that states that players must be 19 or older and one year removed from high school to be eligible for the NBA draft. This has led to a perpetual cycle of the top talents attending college for one year and then leaving for the draft as soon as the tournament is over. Financially, this hasn’t appeared to impact the NCAA yet, but when you turn over your top talent every year, it is not exactly ideal and is also hard to justify why they need to come for that one year in the first place.
On a release date that happened to coincide perfectly with Zion’s injury, Jeff Zillgitt recently reported that the NBA has officially submitted a proposal to the NBPA that would lower the draft-eligible age to 18. This would theoretically allow players to declare right out of high school, like it used to be (to varying degrees of success), mildly shrinking the future NCAA talent pool. Although this could actually be good for college basketball — as it could lead to more year-over-year player and team continuity — the proposal outlined above may be enough to attract and retain top talent regardless.
The only real reason why players leave college after one year, or even opt to play in Europe for a year instead, is because they want to start getting paid. Endorsement money likely wouldn’t beat lottery pick money, but it could be pretty damn close. Couple that with the fact that college is objectively a great time, and you have a compelling case for someone to stay a bit longer and delay their professional aspirations. There is no way being an NBA rookie is more fun than being the guy on a college campus — if you have the talent, you can always go to the NBA, but once you do, you can never be a college athlete again. Dozens of athletes struggle with this decision every year, but money often ends up being the deciding factor. Take the money out of the equation, and the case for rushing professionalism is now suddenly not nearly as strong.
If these players could stay in school, play ball, make good money, and have a chance to enjoy the college experience a little while longer, I think that is better for all parties in the long run.
Taken together, college sport is at a pivotal moment.
Years of turning a blind eye or willful ignorance have given way to a growing unease amongst spectators that something is not right.
The NCAA making multi-billion dollar TV deals.
Conferences cutting 8-figure cheques to schools.
Coaches making millions.
But we don’t sit glued to our screens for the coaches or conferences. We don’t paint our bodies blue or lose our voice cheering incessantly for the NCAA.
We do these things for the athletes; our modern gladiators who might bring us to our feet one moment, and to tears the next. And for all that they have given us over the years, and continue to give us on a nightly basis, it is time to start paying them back.