College sports is a lucrative business that seems to monetarily benefit all stakeholders except for the players. For the 2015-2016 academic year, 28 college athletic departments totaled over $100 million in revenue. This year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association surpassed $1 billion in revenue for the first time ever. Nick Saban, the head football coach at the University of Alabama, is the highest paid college coach at $11 million. Dabo Swinney (Clemson Football), John Calipari (Kentucky Basketball), and Jim Harbaugh (Michigan Football) are not too far behind, earning between 7 and 8.5 million dollars (TheBestSchools). While universities, coaches, and arguably the NCAA are all essential stakeholders within the business of college sports, the student athletes who are directly contributing to the successes of these programs are unfairly compensated.
The NCAA says that “maintaining amateurism is crucial to preserving an academic environment in which acquiring a quality education is the first priority” (Cockrell, 2018). This notion that universities and the NCAA are determined to keep education the highest priority is preposterous. They are essentially using education as an excuse to line their own pockets. The hypocrisy of the NCAA and athletic departments is made clear by the routine reports of academic scandals and coaches/directors contradicting the fundamentals of amateurism. From 1993 to 2011, the University of North Carolina allegedly helped 3,100 students get good grades with little work. Hundreds of classes required little work or had no faculty involvement and many of the students involved were student-athletes. From 1989 to 1991, the University of Miami assisted athletes by forging applications for federal Pell Grant money, receiving approximately $220,000 in funds. In the 1980s, Southern Methodist University illegally paid several of its players, resulting in the infamous “death penalty,” prohibiting the football team from playing in 1987 and 1988. In 2007, several Florida State University student athletes were accused of receiving answers to an exam prior to it being administered. Arizona (allegedly), Southwestern Louisiana, Alabama, Ohio State, William and Mary, USC; the list goes on (Ranker). It is about time that the NCAA and these profitable universities and athletic departments step down from their pedestal of “education first,” and financially commit to their athletes.
The first proposed solution to this issue is to simply lift the “amateur” label from student athletes and allow them to accept any form of payment as semi-professional athletes. At this point, colleges would act as a minor/development league intermediary for players between high school and the pros. This plan would turn college sports into a completely free market, meaning they could accept signing bonuses from athletic departments, earn money for autographs, represent sponsors, etc. This proposal addresses amateurism’s fundamental flaw, which is that it denies athletes the same basic economic rights and protections that other members of society take for granted (Branch, 2011). Many opponents to this free market idea use Title IX, taxes, parity, and pay inequality as excuses to shortchange student athletes.
The concern regarding Title IX is that men and women will inevitably earn disparate incomes from collegiate athletics. Title IX reads. “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” (U.S. Department of Education). As understood in the world of college sports, Title IX requires equal participation opportunity for male and female athletes in proportion to overall campus population and interest. Schools do not have to spend the exact same amount of money on men’s and women’s sports (Hruby). They already sign coaches to drastically different contracts, so there is no reason that Title IX should withhold athletes from receiving just compensation. Once again, John Calipari is currently signed to a $7.14 million contract. Matthew Mitchell, the head coach for the University of Kentucky women’s basketball team, is set to earn roughly $825,000 through the year 2022. Mitchell makes about 11.6% of what Calipari makes. If Title IX were about equal pay regardless of sport, then men’s and women’s coaches would be making much more comparable salaries.
Another argument against paying collegiate athletes is the loss of parity. Many people are under the false impression that a free market would separate poorer schools from the higher-valued Power Five conference schools. The main problem with that assertion is that parity is already virtually nonexistent. Today, there is an enormous drop off in talent and support associated with athletic departments that do not fall under any of the five major conferences (SEC, Big 10, Big XII, Pac-12, and ACC). Schools such as Alabama-Birmingham and Arkansas State are already unable to compete financially and physically with college football powerhouses such as Alabama, Michigan, or Ohio State. Similarly, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, and Duke house basketball programs that have been dominant for as long as the NCAA has been unreasonably committed to amateurism. A completely free market is certainly something to consider for college sports, given its ability to let student athletes live comfortably while meeting the intense physical and academic demands of college and sports.
The second proposal to ensure evenhanded compensation for student athletes is slightly more complex. Inspired by sports business columnist and long-time critic of the NCAA Joe Nocera of The New York Times, proposal number two includes a salary cap. Nocera’s salary cap idea, as Nocera himself puts it, does not break the bank, as one side fears, but it does not completely abandon free-market principles either. Per Nocera’s column; “Every Division I men’s basketball and football team would have a salary cap, just as the pros do – except the amounts would be vastly lower. In basketball, the cap would be $650,000. In football, it would be $3 million.” These price ceilings are completely affordable for the Power Five schools. The combined $3.65 million is still much less than what many coaches make. The second part of this proposal includes imposing a minimum salary, somewhere in the range of $25,000 per player in each sport, to ensure that student athletes are able to live like typical college students. Participation in sports is a very similar time commitment to a full-time job except college athletes are not paid. Therefore, it only makes sense to levy a minimum salary that equates to the annual net pay of a part-time, minimum wage job. This $25,000 minimum salary makes up only half the overall salary cap. The rest of the money would be used to help schools recruit top-rated athletes. Athletic departments could use the extra funds to recruit however they see fit, whether that is spending most of it on big-name, four and five-star recruits, or spending less on more, but lower rated, recruits. Of course, this is still a major change to college sports, and thus would require a complete legal and financial makeover for the NCAA. This would include the implementation of player contracts and a bigger role for the National College Players Association. Salary caps violate antitrust law unless they are negotiated by an organization or player’s union, such as the NCPA, on behalf of the players. Nocera’s plan is much more detailed, including specifics on player scholarships, agents/representation, and unionization. While he writes only about college football and basketball, his plan’s underpinning can be used similarly for other athletic programs. There is no reason why this proposal should not at least be considered by the NCAA (Nocera, 2016).
The third proposal for making sure athletes are fairly compensated is the Olympic model. Up until 1988, the Olympic Games were reserved exclusively for amateurs. Since then, Olympic athletes have been permitted to benefit from their fame and likeness. Allowing student athletes to earn money off of their own image eliminates questions regarding funding, Title IX, taxation, unionization, and worker’s compensation. Endorsement money from a third party does not involve the universities or the NCAA, and thus should not be regulated by them. There is too much money in college sports to justify an unwarranted ban on athletes making money. As Ken Reed of the Huffington Post puts it, “prohibition, in the form of the amateurism myth, doesn’t work. The underground economy in college sports will only grow as the money in college sports grows.” With the Olympic model, the NCAA does not pay the athletes directly. Though they would likely still be opposed to this suggestion because it encourages further discussion on whether or not the NCAA exploits student athletes and disallows the Association from using an excuse related to the preservation of amateurism. This idea reinforces free market principles as well as an appreciation for student athletes’ hard work in the classroom and in their respective sports (Reed, 2016).
The proposal that should come to fruition, at least for now, is proposal three (allowing athletes to profit from their likeness). This idea serves as a compromise between the NCAA, universities, and college athletes. The NCAA and athletic departments do not have to worry about the legal and financial ramifications that would likely arise from a complete restructuring of the business of college sports. Athletes would finally be able to use their fame and likeness similar to how music students are able to accept cash and gifts for playing a weekend gig at the local club (Reed, 2016). It is also one of the easiest options to implement. The NCAA simply has to lift the ban prohibiting athletes from signing endorsement deals. If it is later decided that schools should pay their athletes, it would be easier to transition from the Olympic model as opposed to college sports’ current structure. This is a much needed first step in eliminating the moral unsustainability of college athletics.