Relay runners at the 2011 NCAA track and field championships
photo by Phil Roeder

The talk around pay for play

The discussion over paying college athletes has become more practical year after year. Not only has the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) recognized this reality with recent rule changes regarding the topic, but players have become outspoken as well. As of August 2020, 13 Pac-12 football players threatened to not play unless a long list of demands was met. Of those demands, one called for the Pac-12 to equally distribute 50% of the conference’s annual revenue among football players. This left the NCAA and the Pac-12 to decide whether compensation is the best remedy for this conflict. The payment of collegiate athletes has continued to press on the heels of the NCAA; however, what does the conversation around paying athletes look like? And if these athletes were to be paid, what would that look like?


A discussion of the Pac-12 players' demands
By Sarah Tolman, Tyler Fannin, and Madison Boyle


Analysts, writers, and other experts in the field of collegiate sports have pointed out distinct pros and cons to paying these young athletes. Those in favor claim certain young athletes are often the face of university athletic programs and can draw a massive spotlight to the respective school, in addition to a massive amount of money. As the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette wrote “
there is big money in college sports and the time has come for the athletes who play those sports to get their share of it.

Advocates for paying athletes also pointed to the heavy time investment from players as a reason compensation is necessary. From Patrick Hrbuy of the Washington Post, “eliminating amateurism likely wouldn't make athletes like Colter more distracted or more likely to sacrifice school for sports. It would simply allow them to be compensated for the sacrifices they're already making. The argument is that it comes down to either sports or schoolwork, a sacrifice that often results in the later for most athletes, admitted by Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter who had to avoid strenuous classes and drop his pre-med major. Hruby additionally points out that athletes work as much as a full-time job, spending at least 40 hours per week for their sport in season and 25 out. Hruby and other proponents for athlete pay find the extracurricular obligations to have a significant impact on the maintenance of a satisfactory GPA, heavily due to the amount of time and exhaustion that goes into their craft.

While athletes and other advocates argue this is fair compensation, eliminating amateurism at the collegiate level continues to be met by noteworthy counters. The NCAA has long stood with “paying players would have ‘staggering and destructive impactions’ for college sports – and for the education of campus athletes.” Universities and institutions alike argue it is crucial to maintain the imposed purpose of college - a place of knowledge and opportunity to earn a quality degree. The NCAA and University boards fear the experience of the colligate athlete could turn into one of a transaction rather than education. The NCAA website provides guidelines on their recent rule adjustments, which states any upcoming rule modification must meet the guidelines and principles of “Reaffirming that student-athletes are students first and not employees of the university,” as well as “Maintaining the priorities of education and the collegiate experience to provide opportunities for student-athlete success.”

Critics of paying college athletes argue that the value of education and its importance cannot be diminished or pushed aside and believe that compensation directly takes away these values. Oliver Luck, former NCAA Vice President of regulatory affairs, said in a 2015 speech It would be a bad mistake to create campus employer-employee relationships with student-athletes'', continuing with athlete payment “would detract pursuit of what they are there for – an education...and we need to emphasize the value of that education”.

It is clear compensation stands as a difficult task for Universities and NCAA board members to fully be on board with, as fear of the abandonment of educational principles is evidently large. 

While the NCAA has moved slightly closer to compensating athletes recently, there are still major questions to be answer. For example, if college athletes were to be paid, how might that be done? What would the structure of payment look like? These questions bring upon certain concerns, as pointed out by Brennan Thomas of Bleacher Report. With football and basketball being the dominant revenue generators, there is an immediate discrepancy in popularity among sports and presents equal pay as a difficult task.

This introduces the value proposition by CNBC journalist Abigail Hess. Such a proposition makes direct payment from the NCAA geared toward athletes being in association with name, image, and likeness. Hess notes all athletes have different values, such as a star-quarterback or a punter. There would exist not a certain amount they all be paid or a price tag on them, but rather they would all be given the equal opportunity for payment as if they are valued as a brand. Rather than figuring out how to distribute revenue equally among athletes, such a value-proposition introduces the idea all athletes have the possibility to make their own money.

Another possible framework from Joe Nocera, a Washington Post journalist, suggests a more structured outline that does not touch on name, image, and likeness as much. Nocera proposes a salary-cap based framework. The major revenue-generating sports such as football and basketball would have a salary cap on the sport, with basketball capping at $650,000 and football at $3 million with a minimum salary of $25,000 per player.

The minimum salaries consume only half the cap," Nocera writes. "The rest of the money would be used as a recruiting tool so that a star player could be offered additional money as an inducement to go to a particular university."

Nocera is attempting to make a simple point: the current system spends millions on their individual programs to attract good players, so why not just pay them directly? Nocera also mentions that paying players would have to include contracts, which could include more than just compensation. Nocera suggests that to reduce one-and-dones, some payment contracts could require players to spend a certain amount of years at college. Other requirements could be assured academic benefits or the right to study a certain subject. According to Nocera, requiring certain conditions such as time spent at school, major pursuit, or academic demands could possibly help incentivize athletes to go for quality education and still pursue their athletic dreams, all while being compensated for the revenue they bring to school and the sacrifices they make.

The current amateur athlete policies have stood for a long time. With more discussion coming about monetizing collegiate athletes, the NCAA will have to decide if they do in fact want to compensate athletes for what they bring to the table. Whether that starts with an athlete-value based model or a salary cap framework, athletes under contract no longer remains out of the question.

By Evan McDivitt

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