Taylor Branch’s recent Atlantic article on the evolution of the NCAA’s
controversial brand of amateurism reignited a vigorous debate about whether
college athletes should be compensated. Branch’s argument that
NCAA athletes deserve to be paid is not a novel one, and I am sure that as a noted historian he’s keenly aware of how timing has helped spur interest in his article. Were his piece written twenty, maybe even ten years ago, Branch might’ve been branded as an out of touch academic overstepping his bounds. However, in an era where young musicians (e.g. Justin Bieber) can take to youtube to create the kinds of following previously only imaginable with a big studio’s help, it’s unfathomable why collegiate athletes have to relinquish their marketability to the NCAA.
I for one agree with Branch and others who believe that it NCAA athletes should be compensated. Yes, scholarships are a form of compensation, but I agree with Branch in that scholarships should not be the only form of compensation. In fact, allowing players to earn revenue from sponsorship agreements and stipends can only strengthen NCAA athletics. For one, doing so will enable the NCAA to revamp its mission and instead of being a de facto kangaroo court, the NCAA can evolve into an effective policy body capable of addressing the real issues plaguing collegiate sports (e.g. divisional re-alignment and abysmal graduation rates at certain schools).
There are others like Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis, and the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins firmly disagree with offering college athletes other forms of compensation. It’s striking that journalists still disapprove of this concession. Imagine for a minute if a top-flight journalism student at Northwestern, Missouri or Columbia was prohibited from being compensated for an article published in the New Yorker or Sports Illustrated, or even accepting a paid internship at one of these publications because as a collegiate journalist she or he is an amateur writer, and as such should not be paid. No young writer would stand for such a rule. Yet, you have journalists like Davis of Sports Illustrated and Jenkins argue that NCAA athletes should not be paid even though they likely would not have accepted a similar arrangement in their own professions.
Baseball and collegiate tennis are great examples that in some cases scholarships are worthwhile alternatives to launching a professional career. Dozens of highly touted baseball prospects decline lucrative signing bonuses and professional contracts in order to play collegiate baseball every year. Similarly, dozens of amateur tennis players accept scholarships instead of trying to launch their professional careers.
Who’s to say that in an open market, collegiate football and basketball players would not continue accepting scholarships to high profile institutions such as Ohio State, Alabama and Duke if the alternative is sitting at the end of a D-League bench or being a third round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals? Moreover, why wouldn’t a highly touted recruit from an affluent family like Austin Rivers opt for at least one more year carefree living and tutoring from one of his sport’s greatest minds, instead of competing to backup Anthony Parker in Cleveland?
Those who insist on arguing that college’s can’t afford to pay athletes, therefore the NCAA shouldn’t allow athletes to be compensated are either naïve or hypocritical. If anything what many of the scandals from the last thirty years, from SMU to USC, have taught us is that there are plenty of people willing to step in to help college’s make payroll. Jerry Jones wouldn’t have ever bought the Cowboys if he had to pay all his players out of his own pocket. He pays them from the revenue earned from sponsorships, ticket sales and licensing agreements. In other words the schools who earn revenue from particular sports would have the liberty to share the earnings with the players who made such revenue possible, and the schools who don’t earn revenue…well I am sure they’ll figure something out, after all isn’t why their administrators went to college.
What we have to resign ourselves to is that the real issue isn’t whether to pay or not pay players, but rather that not all schools are created equal. South Florida will never make as much money from football as Florida and Florida will never make as much as the University of Texas. And you know what, that’s ok. Each school should be free to negotiate with their players as they see fit. Professional sports have taught us time and again that teams with the biggest payrolls are not locks to win championships. Just ask any Redskins fan whether they would prefer, their team’s previous owners who were thrifty, but who brought home three Super Bowl titles, or Daniel Snyder, a real life Richie Rich, but under whose stewardship the franchise has a sub-500 record.
Paying players and ensuring an equal distribution of talent across colleges are very different goals. Talent is not divided equally now and paying players would do nothing to alter that reality. Therefore if Nike, Under Armour and Adidas are intent on using collegiate athletes as pawns in their battle for consumers’ soles, then the athletes who are the headliners in these contests deserve to be compensated for their work.
But wait you say, won’t some players earn more than others? Yes, they will earn more than their teammates. They will earn a lot more. But why precisely is that an issue? LeBron James earns a lot more than Eddie House yet I never heard Eddie House complain once this season that he deserves to be making as much as LeBron. Heck, half the league earned less than Eddy Curry this past year yet you didn’t hear players walking out in protest. It’s a fact of life some people in the same workplace earn more than others.
And it’s not as if there currently aren’t wealth disparities on collegiate teams? Andrew Luck’s family is wealthier than those of many of his Stanford teammates, as was Peyton Manning than most of his teammates at Tennessee, yet you didn’t see anyone turning on either Luck or Manning because of their wealth. Sure, except for maybe at Florida State, the place-kicker will never make as much as the quarterback on a collegiate team. But you know what, maybe he’ll negotiate to have more time to pursue a more difficult major, or have his travel to and from home covered four times a year so he can visit his parents. Compensation doesn’t always have to come in the form of salaries, as we all know from our own jobs there are things we negotiate for when hired that do not have a numerical value assigned to them.
The last canard in most arguments for not paying NCAA athletes is that not all sports generate revenue. While I can’t say that table-tennis will ever be a revenue earning sport, I wouldn’t rule out the potential for some schools to be able to make more money from sports like Golf, tennis, baseball, hockey or soccer. Colleges with strong soccer programs can learn a thing or two from their football counterparts in how to leverage the rabid fanaticism that some people have toward their alma maters to boost this sport’s profile among American audiences.
By allowing players to earn money from sponsorship deals NCAA soccer players wouldn’t lose anything by accepting a scholarship to UCLA for example instead of turning pro. In fact, they might have even more to gain as more players opt to play in college and sponsors take advantage of historic collegiate rivalries to boost interest in these sports. If American audiences were assured that some of best young players were on college teams I am sure that this would pique their interest in sports beyond football and basketball. If the Freddy Adus of this world continue turning pro at sixteen and spending their teenage years out of the American limelight in Italy, American audiences will continue to have good reason to be skeptical of the quality of play of collegiate soccer players in the US.
In short, paraphrasing that wise old sage Rasheed Wallace, the time has come for the NCAA to “CTC,” cut the check!