June Promises Monumental Change In College Athletics

Higher Education is on the precipice of monumental change. The Supreme Court will rule on the case NCAA v Alston, which could open the doors for wide-ranging, systemic change in the ways college athletics may compensate the workers (aka student-athletes) competing in Division I athletics.

This question of payment dogs many who are trying to find the appropriate types of compensation to reward students who generate over $18 billion a year in total revenues for their institutions and their athletic programs. Is a scholarship enough when the head football coaches are making $10 million a year?

Rather than look at this argument as yes, we should pay them, or no, we should not, it’s crucial to remember the argument is more nuanced. Here are some questions to consider if you are in favor of treating athletes as employees of the university.

If you are in favor of paying athletes, how do you define pay?

  • Is it salary and benefits?
  • Is it based on a game-by-game performance? By position?
  • Is it based on revenues earned by the team in media revenue, ticket sales, sponsorships? If so, do you split them evenly?
  • Is the income taxable? Are there bonuses?

One can make a cogent argument to pay college athletes their market value and turn them into employees. However, the unintended consequences of paying a few athletes could destroy the opportunities for others.

Here’s the flip side: athletes already are being paid, just in a different manner. On many Division I campuses, football and basketball players currently receive full scholarships, including tuition and fees, room, board, books, insurance premiums, emergency travel and materials use, professional training and internships, as well as cost of attendance. Is that “fair” compensation for the revenue generated by athletes over four or five years of time and effort?

Another angle: How should non-revenue athletes be compensated? Should they be treated differently?Most non-revenue athletes in sports like track and field, swimming, field hockey and lacrosse receive partial scholarships or no scholarships. The irony is they practice the same amount of time as the football and basketball teams, despite receiving less athletic aid. Their team budgets are currently subsidized by dollars from football and men’s basketball; media revenue and ticket sales; student fees; central campus budget dollars; and athletic fundraising. On the flip side, they do bring in tuition revenues for the institution: but those dollars do not appear on athletic department books.

Common ground

Most can agree that the limits placed on athletes to earn money have been too harsh and restrictive; combined with the outlandish salaries paid to many Division I football and basketball coaches, these issues are what drives the support for names, images and likenesses legislation in so many states. Coaches and others are making millions only because athletes aren’t making anything. It has led to is a ridiculous amount of money spent on facilities and recruiting –all extremely inefficient and out of alignment with the rest of higher education.

Can those dollars be redirected more productively? Many argue that athletes should receive more of the following as a form of compensation:

  • Medical care (including lifetime medical care for some injuries like concussions);
  • Paying for graduate degrees (medical school, law school, graduate school) and other academic programs;
  • Creating paid internships and work experiences so they can remain competitive in landing a job;

Some argue the college degree that these athletes (hopefully) leave with may end up being less valuable due to the amount of hours per week they are involved in athletic activities—leaving no time for internships or co-ops. Is restructuring their experience a better way to go? Cutting back on the massive year-round time commitments for all athletes (six days a week in most months) could significantly reduce staff time as well. The old adage of “only 2% of NCAA athletes go pro” applies here.

Untapped dollars in NIL

March Madness featured male and female basketball players who have, between them, over 10 million Instagram followers. At an average of $0.80 per follower, that’s $8 million of potential personal income just for that group of athletes alone. Can you imagine the life-changing wealth that could mean to each athlete? Each family?

The advances in Federal and state legislation surrounding NIL shows there is bi-partisan support for revising the relationship between college athletes and the value the bring to the university. Where should it end? We don’t know-yet. It’s quite possible the Supreme Court ruling will provide additional guidance this month.

June should be a very interesting month in the history of college sports. How leaders in higher education and college athletics adjust to this new world will define this transformative moment.

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