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The College Problem: Compensating Student-Athletes

By: Caleb J. Duncan

We’ve been talking a lot lately about the enigma that is Zion Williamson. Up until now, it’s been all positive as we’ve speculated about him being drafted number one overall, what team he will go to, how he will impact the game, etc.

Not today.

Zion Williamson injured his knee within the first minute on Wednesday against rival UNC where tickets rivaled the price of a Super Bowl ticket. His foot literally burst through his shoe on a play [insert new Nike campaign here].

Zion has a mild knee sprain and should recover in time for the draft. Honestly, even if he wasn’t 100% by that time he’d probably still get picked up on the first pick due to his prowess on the court.

However, many are now saying Zion should sit out the rest of the season to avoid the potential of another injury that could be more serious. Why? Because he isn’t being paid and he’s putting his body on the line. What if Zion comes back and suffers a major injury that derails his professional career before it even starts? He’d leave college with next to nothing to show for his hard work.

This conversation is not new and yet, no impactful change has been made in order to help student-athletes. We’ve only talked about whether these players (across all college sports) should be paid during their time at school, but everytime an injury of this magnitude occurs the conversation ends up fading until the next college star gets hurt. The pattern needs to be broken.

There is a big divide between those who firmly believe college players should be paid and those who think it is not necessary.

To put in perspective just how long this has been an issue just remember Spencer Haywood’s case against the NBA… in 1968.

Haywood filed a lawsuit against the NBA’s rule that a player could not sign with a team until after four years of graduating high school. The Supreme Court ended up ruling in Haywood’s favor 7-2 that the NBA’s age restriction couldn’t stay in place.

Spencer Haywood joined the Seattle SuperSonics in 1970 at age 21 despite the NBA rule prohibiting the move (David Eskenazi Collection)

After Zion’s injury, the NBA proposed lowering the draft age to 18 in an attempt to help young athletes try their luck in the pros without having to risk their livelihood in college for 4+ years. A definite positive step forward, but only if it is approved.

The 2005-2006 NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement updated the rules in two major ways:

  1. All drafted players must be at least 19 years old during the calendar year of the draft.
  2. Any player who is not an “international player”, as defined in the CBA, must be at least one year removed from the graduation of his high school class.

This means if you want to go pro right out of high school you can’t (for now at least). You have to wait at least one year (even if you are 19 years old when you graduate high school).

A possible solution for a player who wants to play professionally out of high school could be to go to Europe where the rules are much more relaxed. Luka Doncic’s response to Donovan Mitchell may have been in good fun, but the appeal of playing in a league that accepts you right away where an athlete can begin to reap the benefits of their athletic ability is growing.

The NCAA would need to agree to some changes or they may begin to see more and more high school athletes take the safer route in Europe.

Terrence Ferguson opted to do just that stating:

“Most one-and-done players only spend a few months in college. You have to do schoolwork and all this other stuff. You go overseas, you spend the same amount of months, but you’re focusing straight on basketball. I feel like more players should do it.


At college, the only people making money off you are the coaches. You’re not making anything off your jersey sales, ticket sales. Not anything. So go overseas, the way I did, and get your money’s worth. Get paid for what you’re doing.”

SB Nation

With social media now broadcasting these injuries and the internet making it next to impossible to ignore just how much the NCAA, schools, and coaches profit from these athletes they’ll need to make the change sooner rather than later.

Here are some potential options that may provide solutions to this dilemma if the NCAA were so inclined:

Players Receive Profit Percentage Upon Graduating

This is an interesting idea. If a college player goes to a school like USC or Clemson where the profits from a sport like football are massive then perhaps players could sign on to play and agree to take a percentage of the profits made from their particular sport upon graduating school. This could include ticket sales, merchandise sales and maybe ad revenue.

This set up would require the player to most likely stay the full 4 years and opting to leave a year early could nullify the potential profits. While star athletes could still jump ship knowing they’ll make more money on the professional level core groups of athletes who play well could still be incentivized to stay the full 4 years.

Players would almost certainly continue to be barred from receiving incentives and deals throughout college from teams and companies like Adidas or Under Armour. Ideally, the prospect of knowing you’ll receive a share upon graduation may help keep players out of situations where they break NCAA rules.

How big the percentage is would certainly have to depend on how much money the school makes from that sport though. Also, who would decide how much the player is worth? A starter would receive a higher percentage whereas a backup would see a smaller amount. This would make it difficult to lock players into a set percentage if there is an injury or if the player begins to excel by their senior year. This begins to turn into more of a professional league contract which the NCAA would absolutley attempt to avoid.

Another big issue here is injuries. What if a star athlete at the school is injured? Is the profit guaranteed? Probably not as guaranteed contracts in professional sports are not even the norm. This would most likely require the NCAA or school to provide a payout of a certain percentage if a player is injured due to the sport.

While this is an interesting idea it’s clear that there are many holes in the suggestion that would keep it from coming to fruition.

Guaranteed Paid Tuition, Books, Clothes, Meals, etc.

A share of the profits the school makes from the sport would go towards ensuring the player is adequately taken care of while they play.

To see the impact of playing for free just look at Shabazz Napier’s struggles while playing in college. He couldn’t afford food and went to bed hungry most nights.

Shabazz Napier tells Fox Sports about going to bed starving” at times.

By assuring students don’t have to worry about paying for school, their materials, and the basics like food and hygiene, not only can they focus on their game and development, but the school can make sure their athletes are properly taken care of. Morally, this is a bankable idea.

A poll showed many people favored this idea when it came to paying college students:

courtesy of poll-maker.com

Perhaps athletes from low-income households would be eligible to receive additional assistance with these expenses, provided that they are able to prove they are from a low-income household (this is similar to financial aid, but the money would typically come from the school exclusively in this instance rather than the government).

Unfortunately, this solution doesn’t necessarily answer if a student should receive an actual profit for playing. It just ensures college students are more comfortable throughout their tenure at the school.

This idea of guaranteed tuition, taken from Jonathan Chait, proposes to ensure students receive scholarships when they accept a school’s offer to come and play. The concept protects students from being let go from the school due to an injury or if their development is stifled for any number of reasons. Payment in the form of tuition, while not a profit, would allow a student to still gain an education even if their athletic venture fails to pan out. Worth adding is that these scholarships could be revoked for disciplinary issues or academic failing (like any scholarship).

Some athletes do receive a small living stipend while also being given tuition assistance, but the vast majority go without any help. Of the approximate 480,000 players who play in the NCAA, around 150,00 receive some form of scholarship. That’s a little more than two-thirds of the student-athlete population that receive no financial assistance. Remember that these scholarships given to the 150,000 are not all full rides. Many of these scholarships only cover partial tuition costs.

Payment Given to Players Based on School/Program Profitibility

Basing payment on the school and/or athletic program appears to be one of the most popular solutions presented right now. The idea is if you go to a school that makes millions of dollars a year then the players who help rake in that money should be given a slice of it while playing for the school.

So let’s say School A’s football program is nationally acclaimed and makes a lot of money. Therefore, the athletes receive part of that profit. School A’s basketball team is relatively unknown though and therefore the minimal profit received for basketball doesn’t go to the students but rather filters back into the program to sustain it.

This is widely accepted by many, but the problem is clear favoritism. The idea essentially tells the basketball player that they don’t work as hard and are not as successful, therefore they get nothing. That is admittedly insulting even though it’s a harsh reality. Individual coaches could provide the best insight into who they think works the hardest but that’s too subjective.

If we begin to pay players based on if their sport makes money then the possibility of some kind of a revolt from the less successful players would ensue. They may argue that they work just as hard, but don’t receive the same attention or budget to help them succeed.

This idea extends to small schools too. The Alabama Crimson Tide football team is widely known. The Howard Payne Yellow Jackets (Brownwood, Tx) have a smaller program that doesn’t make as much of a profit as Alabama, but does that mean the players at Howard Payne University don’t put their bodies and careers on the line like the stars in a Division I school?

Howard Payne players could argue that even though they aren’t as well known the university should still pay them because they put in the same effort and take the same risks.

Could this be where the NCAA steps in and helps provide some form of compensation to the players of small sports programs or schools who are just under the cusp of being profitable enough to provide compensation to the players?

Alabama head coach Nick Saban secured an eight-year deal worth $74 million in 2018 (Mark Rebilas – USA Today Sports)

“Put up or shut up” seems to be the general response to this counter argument. If a smaller school wants to be paid like the larger school then they need to perform at the same level. The problem here is that the school can argue that due to their location, population, etc. they are unable to recruit bigger names which could lead to more wins and media exposure, resulting in higher profits.

Looking at this idea cannot happen without also admitting female college athletes would be, for the most part, stuck in the same place. It’s typically male-driven college sports that earn the most money and book the bigger markets so allowing student-athletes to earn money based on the profitability of the sport at a school would almost guarantee female athletes go without pay.

Players Paid via Ticket Sales

This idea has a lot of traction as well. It’s subject to the previous model of a program’s profitability though.

Also, what if the program, like track and field, doesn’t have ticket prices? This solution could only work for schools that have games and events that charge tickets (and the prices would have to be ridiculously high) and retain enough of a crowd to be able to afford some form of compensation for the player.

Pay the Players the State’s Minimum Wage

Typically, a student involved in a sport has little to no time to work to pay for school supplies, tuition, food, etc. To be truly involved in the sport at school is so time-consuming that it’s rare for students to have the time or energy for anything else.

This idea would ensure the school provides a minimum wage to students who can use the money in whatever way they see fit. The student-athletes still goes to classes like most others (although the type of class is vastly different; more on this later) but since they don’t have the ability to get a job the minimum wage may appease many players.

This idea has an added benefit, in theory. Students will naturally want to go to a school in a state that pays a higher minimum wage. This means that even star athletes may want to go to a school in a state depending on the minimum wage knowing they won’t have the benefit of endorsements for a few years. This could convince states to work to raise the minimum wage for the entire state in order to attract athletes to major schools.

The question here is does the increased minimum wage still come at a lower cost than the price students pay in tuition or money given to the school by the state? If it ends up costing the state more to raise the minimum wage then they would be less inclined to raise it. It’s easy to see that the minimum wage payout from the government would most likely far exceed a student’s tuition, so the government would have to agree to raise the minimim wage for student-athletes only. Do you see that happening? Yea, me neither.

Let Endorsements Finally Happen

This strategy would only work for a small handful of college athletes who are nationally (maybe statewide) known. The endorsement would be a fantastic thing to happen to an athlete like Zion, but what about the bench player on his team who puts in the same effort?

This idea is lopsided but many feel that compensating student-athletes for their performance should be provided in addition to allowing endorsements for student-athletes.

Create Football/Basketball/Baseball Majors

In 2018, the NCAA reiterated their firm belief that “maintaining amateurism is crucial to preserving an academic environment in which acquiring a quality education is the first priority” and that if autograph signings and endorsements were available a player would be distracted from “what’s really important… the educational component.” The NCAA is worried that compensating players will ultimately lead to the players focusing less on their school work and more on making money.

The paradox in their statement is that there are rampant examples of schools offering classes far below the standard of what an actual class should be.

Work with me on this one. It’s a well-known fact that once you move past the basics at college the classes for a student-athlete can become somewhat of a joke. In the case with UNC, some classes were literally fake. Other schools like Syracuse and Southern Methodist University have also been caught in their own scams. Let’s not pretend like student-athletes always receive the same level of education as a typical student.

You have majors like nutrition and physical therapy that can transfer into working in the professional sports industry, but a student-athlete is so wrapped up in the game that many are unable to fulfill the requirements for these majors (often involving heavy sciences, math, and additional credits). This relegates players to take “easier” courses such as communications where the school can alter the program to benefit the athlete and keep them away from any real academic accountability. That isn’t to say a communications major is easy, but it’s a major that can be drastically altered until it’s a shell of what the curriculum truly is. Many schools can get away with providing vague and laughably easy classes so the players don’t spend much time studying, but this is a severe disservice to the student.

Let’s be honest with these players. Their life in school is revolving around that sport, so why not make it a comprehensive major? If someone is playing football in college then allow them to major in the actual sport.

They won’t receive the same education as someone who majored in nutrition, but there can be electives that allow the player to gain a broad view of the sport so that the vast majority who don’t make it in the professional leagues can still find gainful employment in the sport in other avenues.

To add to this, if the major itself is too broad then players have the ability to work towards a Master’s Degree if they feel they want or need more experience and education.

This means their classes would revolve around the sport they play so that they can learn how to coach, train, even market a team or player. A student could obviously opt to work in another major if they chose, but doing something like this can provide student-athletes with not only a realistic opportunity to succeed in the workforce, but it allows the students to remain focused on the reason they are at that school.

A side benefit here is more employment opportunities for retired players, trainers, and coaches to join universities in order to help teach young students the multiple aspects of the game.

Pay them… but no more than G-League or Minor League Players

Let’s be honest, college basketball is essentially the NBA’s ugly step-child we don’t want to admit is part of the family.

G-League Players earn about $35k for the 5 month season they play ($7k/month). That’s not too bad for some people. The average salary of a AAA player in baseball is about $78k. Again, not too shabby.

While it would be difficult to find many people who agree to pay a college player this much, it does present a good starting point. The NCAA can agree that whatever payment a college player gets cannot exceed a minor league amount. This might mean players at schools with large profits may be capped when it comes to paying star athletes.

Reduce Coaches Salaries to Pay Athletes

Yep. How do we think this would go over? USA Today keeps track of NCAAF salaries for coaches. The top 82 coaches make over $1 million per season. The coaches past that are not too far behind them.

The issue with this theory is that if you divide the coach’s salary up between the players then it is likely the coach may not even have a livable wage. If this were to work it would have to be in conjunction with something else most likely.

Schools would have to begin to put their foot down and pay the coaches less in order to compensate players with additional assistance from the NCAA.

Finally:

Let the Players Unionize

The Northwestern football team attempted this a few years ago and failed, but this idea, as Chait points out, could relieve the burden of money from the player’s shoulders and help them focus on the game without worrying about leading the effot.

It wouldn’t solve anything over night, but it would give the students a fair chance to make their case in front of their school, the NCAA, and, if it comes to it (which is most certainly would), the courts.


Jonathan Chait raises a very important question:

“Is the problem artificial barriers are preventing people from capturing their market value? Or is the problem college athletes are being overworked and under-rewarded? Those two different conceptions of the problem lead to very different kinds of solutions.”

Intelligencer

In actuality, the answer is both. Organizations like the NCAA prevent student-athletes from collecting in on the profits they bring into their schools. At the same time, student-athletes are working for free, giving up their time, money, bodies, and minds to a sport that essentially tell them “you aren’t worth it.”

Americans love sports. We can’t get enough of them. We have different sports for every season and now other leagues are beginning to pop up so that we don’t go through withdrawal when one season ends. To act like a student-athlete isn’t worth it is a shame.

We can debate over how a player will be compensated. It can be literal paychecks, endorsements or free tuition, but to ask this much of a student-athlete in hopes they make it to the professional level so that we can enjoy their talents for years to come and yet withhold one thing that truly matters in this nation: money, seems absurd. Wouldn’t we want to invest in these players so that they can play professionally? This would let us enjoy their athleticism even longer.

If the college problem of compensating athletes was to be solved it would be one-sided. Female athletes have to put forth the same effort and typically receive little to no attention for their work at the professional level and especially at the collegiate level.

The U.S. Women’s national soccer team has won three FIFA Women’s World Cups. They won in 1991, 1999, and 2015. The furthest the U.S. Men’s team has gotten is the semi-finals (in 1930). There are more nations competing in men’s professional soccer but it wouldn’t be fair to downplay the success the women’s team had had over the past twenty-eight years.

Kelley O’Hara and Carli Lloyd embrace after advancing to the World Cup finals (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

In 2016 the U.S. Women’s team sought recognition for their accomplishments by filing a lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation for equal pay. In 2017, the team won an increase in pay, expanded benefits, travel benefits, bigger bonuses, and matching per diems to bring them equal with the men’s team.

Part of the expanded benefits included financial aid for players who are pregnant or adopting.

The win for the US Women’s national team was historic and long overdue. Yet with the exception of some well known female athletes like Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey there is still a large population of female athletes on the professional level without the equal opportunities afforded to many male athletes.

It’s unfortunate to think that until the issue is solved on the professional level female athletes at the collegiate level have the steepest climb ahead.


Featured Photo Credit: Chuck Liddy/The News & Observer

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