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Pay to Play? A Look Inside the NCAA’s Elephant In the Room

The issue that can’t be silent forever.

The United States is unlike other countries in a lot ways. A LOT of ways. But when it comes to sports, Americans hold something close to their hearts that practically no other country does, at least not to the extent of the States. That something is the affinity and love we as a country have for collegiate sports. Practically everyone has filled out a March Madness bracket, watched a bowl game or even unintentionally hummed the fight song of the local college team in town. It’s not like their is a shortage of professional sports options in the U.S., there is a very competitive league for the five major sports (MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA, MLS) and also smaller leagues for sports ranging from lacrosse to women’s softball.

The talent at the collegiate level is so strong in the United States that when watching it’s easy to forget that they are simply college kids who are exceptionally good at a particular sport. These talents often times lead to free education for these young athletes, which for many is incentive to perform well in high school as to take away the financial burden of student loan and tuition payments. That has long been the draw for upperclassmen athletes in high school; play a sport good enough to where you can get a college degree for free. It seems like a great deal, especially considering the high tuition payments at some schools, but do some of these athletes deserve more than just a free education? After all, the NCAA and the university’s athletic departments are making billions of dollars a year, and without these athletes that revenue wouldn’t be possible. There are a lot of feelings and opinions on this topic, and there is a sense that some form of change is coming. This topic will be addressed soon by the NCAA, and what changes are made could have vast implications on both collegiate and professional sports. Let’s take a deeper look at some of the potential solutions, if any, that might help settle this debate and make all parties involved happier and more sustainable in the long run.

Why Change Anything?

For the sake of full disclosure, I personally don’t have a concrete opinion on this subject, I just know that somehow in the next 10 years, college sports are going to shift in some way or another. I see both sides of the spectrum, but it is hard to imagine the current system lasting much longer. That doesn’t mean any drastic changes will happen, but certainly some minor ones are on the horizon. The two most popular and lucrative college sports in the U.S. are college football and basketball, so most of this article will primarily focus on these two sports and how they will play the biggest role in any change that will happen. With that being said, to fully answer the question “Why change anything?” we have to look at why this discussion is even being talked about.

College sports in the United States have been around forever, where the first documented event was a rowing competition between Yale and Harvard in 1852. As previously noted, the most watched and most popular college sports are men’s basketball and football, and both of these sports are covered nationally just as much or more than the professional sports in our country. From the College Football Playoff to March Madness to bowl games and the many preseason and other postseason basketball tournaments, college sports provide many must-see events for American sports fans. All these events are covered heavily by every major sports network in the country, and some of the television deals that go along with these games are insanely lucrative. To truly show how much money is being made from these sporting events, here are a few of the more eye-popping television contracts:

  • In 2010, CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion dollar contract with the NCAA for March Madness
  • The Big Ten Conference signs a deal in 2016 with ESPN and Fox, projects to make the conference $440 million dollars annually (football and basketball)
  • SEC reported $347 million dollars in TV revenue in 2014, likely to increase
  • PAC-12 received $215 million dollars in TV money in 2017, accounting for 70 percent of the conference’s income

If this seems like a staggering amount of money, it’s because it is. And trust me, there are many other examples out there. Football is leading the charge when it comes to making money for college athletic departments, followed by men’s basketball and then a slew of other sports fighting for number three, like ice hockey, baseball and women’s basketball. There are two different ways to view these athletes, you either look at them as beneficiaries of the popularity of college sports, or you view them as the benefactors of the revenue due to their talent. Currently, the athletes do get compensated in some way, where their education is paid for, normally with room and board taken care of as well. To many people, free education is seen as just compensation for college athletes, and that leads us to the next section of this debate…

Is Change Actually Necessary?

In the most recent study, around 70 percent of Americans attend some form of college after high school. Many students around the country who attend 4-year colleges or universities will pay a fairly hefty price to attend school, and a majority of those students will have to take out some kind of a loan to pay for their schooling. On average the cost of college for 4-year students is $9,410 for in-state public college, $23,890 for public out-of-state college and $32,410 for private college. Let’s play the numbers game and average out those three different types of schools (considering Division 1 schools recruit out-of-state and some are private universities as well). So hypothetically, if an athlete were to play for four years at a school and athletic scholarships did not exist, these athletes would be on the hook to pay just under $88,000 dollars after graduation. While we are playing the hypothetical numbers game, let’s assume the average, non-athlete college student works a part-time job while in school. Let’s say that part time job pays the student 12 dollars per hour, and they work 25 hours per week, or 100 hours per month (considering the varying minimum wages in different parts of the country, 12 dollars is a fair estimate for jobs that have tips, commissions, etc…). If the student carried that part-time job for all four years of college (summer included) they would have made around $58,000, or just under $15,000 a year. This is where the argument gets interesting. If we are simply talking about money made or saved while in school, the athletes getting a free education are still coming out on top by a wide margin. Naturally, some students have college funds, academic scholarships or grants that might keep them from having to pay for every cent of their education.

I think is widely agreed upon that people don’t actually expect the star quarterback to score touchdowns on Saturdays and flip burgers on Sundays, but to say these athletes aren’t getting a pretty good deal would be incorrect. They are certainly saving a lot of money by being given a scholarship, and the argument of athletes not having time for jobs might have some warrant, but statistically speaking they are still getting the best financial deal as compared to their non-athlete peers. However, for those who believe that these athletes are not getting their fair share of the revenue pie, this next section is for you…

Time For a Change?

To illustrate why a potential change is needed in the form of correct compensation of collegiate athletes, there is one particular story that paints the perfect picture. Rather than give some more numbers regarding TV deals or or revenue statistics, let’s take a look at the case of former University of Central Florida kicker Donald De La Haye. This young athlete had received a scholarship from UCF his junior year as a kickoff specialist, but off the field he was somewhat of a YouTube star, creating a channel and posting inspirational and instructional videos on kicking, football, and life. Despite not being a megastar, De La Haye said he was making “a substantial amount” that was vital as his only source of income given his duties in the classroom and on the field. Long story short, De La Haye was told by the NCAA that he would be ruled ineligible if he continued making videos, all because he was making money off advertisements on his channel. The NCAA stated that he could make non-sports related videos, but any videos pertaining to his status and talent as a Division 1 kicker would deem him ineligible. He ultimately chose to stop playing football and accept the penalty, and he has since received millions of views on his channel.

It sounds crazy, but this did happen just a year ago. Allowing players to make money off of these types of things seems like a clear path for them to make some money despite their busy schedules, but the NCAA still came at this young athlete with their hammer in hand. There has to be some form of a middle ground, some way in which the NCAA allows players to receive some extra compensation without it causing corruption or tainting the game in a negative manner. With that being said, here’s a potential solution...

Let’s Fix This!

So the general feeling I get when discussing this topic with others is that giving players extra compensation sounds nice but to them it seems too difficult to please everyone that needs to be pleased. That’s a fair opinion, and frankly there are a lot of moving parts that make it a little overwhelming. The following paragraph would be the plan I would propose if I was king for a day.

The idea that players cannot make money off of their own likeness needs to go away. There needs to be some stipulations, but overall, let players use their local and sometimes national popularity. Allow local businesses to use these kids as potential spokesmen for their businesses, and put a hard cap on what they are allowed to be paid. For instance, no player at any school can make more than $10,000 a year in media or television appearances. This keeps the recruiting process more sanctified and won’t let boosters enter in bidding wars in attempts to lure high school prospects to their school via legal payments. Furthermore, allow players to run their own sports camps for the local community. This gives players a chance to connect with their local fans, and teaches them how to organize and execute a business plan. Ideally, giving these players a little extra money will allow them to get an early start on managing money and give those players who do not go pro and chance to graduate with some money in the bank.

Overall, most people who are against paying players have two arguments: Is it fair for the smaller, less popular sports programs and would it muddy the recruiting waters? I believe that the plan stated above is at least a step in the right direction and it certainly answers those two big questions. If a player on the tennis team receives the same payment as the starting quarterback on the football team, it just doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t mean that athlete doesn’t work just as hard, but the idea that a blanket payment for all athletes is the best way does not seem feasible. The main reason why a standard, blanket payment for all athletes won’t work is that it really will cut into the pockets of the athletic departments and the NCAA as a whole. Now this may be apart of the problem, but it’s hard to imagine the NCAA approving something that they know will cost them and the athletic departments a lot of money. The most popular players will obviously have the best chance to make money, but in reality that does seem the most fair. If there are stipulations on how much they can make and there is a universal cap on what each athlete can make regardless of what school they go to, it’s hard to imagine how that could create any extra potential recruiting violations. An added bonus to allowing some of the more higher profile players to receive money is that players will be less likely to leave college early for the sake of a paycheck in the professional game. Some players might see the glitz and glamor of the potential earnings in the pro game and sacrifice finishing their education or further developing their talents as means to make money quicker in the professional game. This might actually help the pro game, as colleges will be able to offer players that are more polished and mature that are truly ready for the highest level of competition.

With all things considered, the current format of college sports does give athletes a chance to receive a free education while playing the sport that they love. There is a case to be made for players to receive more than just a scholarship, and if possible this could help the athletes, the schools and even the pro game. Change is coming, and that change just may shift college athletics in a major way.