3 Important Issues the Ongoing Discussion About Paying Student-Athletes is Distracting Us From Dealing With

Taylor Branch’s cover story in this month’s The Atlantic, “The Shame of College Sports,” added some zest to the already spicy debate about how to compensate student athletes, particularly those in revenue sports.

Branch asserts, “The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.”

Branch obviously is not the first person to suggest that some college athletes receive money beyond that which pays for tuition, board, books, and food, but Branch’s piece is significant for its look at the history of the NCAA and the concept of amateurism and for its explanation of how the NCAA and its member schools have colluded to place an artificial cap on athlete compensation. Branch examines the dubious origin of the term “student-athlete”: The NCAA invented the phrase so that college athletes, who are not just “students,” would not have to be held to the same academic admissions standards as their peers and so that college athletes, who were students and not employees, would not be entitled to worker compensation benefits. Branch also walks us through a gallery of victims of the NCAA’s arcane policies.

What are you doing this weekend? You

Last week Branch published The Cartel, an e-book including everything in the Atlantic article and much more. The Cartel is available in all major e-book formats for only $3.99. It’s about 125 pages (depending on your e-reader). Read it if you haven’t already.

Seth Davis, of Sports Illustrated and CBS, wrote a rebuttal to Branch’s piece in which he correctly points out that the vast majority of college athletic departments lose money (and lots of it). Even many Division I men’s basketball and FBS football programs operate in the red. Thus the question of a player’s market value applies to a very small percentage of college athletes. Davis is also correct that the value of a college scholarship (and lodging, meals, books, coaching, tutoring, and so forth) is not insignificant. (Anyone who has spent a decade paying off student loan debt knows this.)

But Davis doesn’t address the charges of collusion. He gets around it by arguing that athletes have the right to eschew college altogether and play professionally. This has always been a viable option for baseball, hockey, and tennis players. Basketball players have to wait one year after leaving high school to declare for the NBA Draft, but they can spend that year playing overseas or in the NBDL. I’m not sure what Davis expects football players to do.

Maybe young athletes can avoid “the cartel,” but in the United States college sports is the best option (in terms of coaching, facilities, competition, etc.) for most talented young people who wish to continue their athletic endeavors beyond high school. And the fact that some college athletes have alternatives to the NCAA isn’t an excuse for the NCAA to treat athletes unfairly.

Pay-for-play is only one aspect of a much larger conversation about the NCAA’s treatment of student-athletes, and it is an issue that—again—affects very few players. Athlete compensation is a worthy topic of conversation, and if you are interested in the question of whether to pay student-athletes, I recommend this paper by Andy Schwartz, “Excuses, Not Reasons: 13 Myths about (not) Paying College Athletes.”

This question of whether to pay players is great fodder for blogs, columns, and talk radio shows, but it has gotten so much attention that it is distracting us from more important matters involving the NCAA’s treatment of student-athletes.

The shame of one-year scholarships

The University of Evansville, upon accepting my application so many years ago, offered me an academic scholarship. The scholarship was good for 4 years, provided I earned a certain number of credit hours and maintained a certain grade-point average. Athletic scholarships at NCAA member schools don’t work this way.

In 1973 the NCAA put a rule in place prohibiting its member schools from offering student-athletes anything more than a one-year scholarship. A four-year athlete’s college tuition isn’t covered by a single scholarship but by four smaller scholarships. While Andrew Luck and Harrison Barnes will have scholarships waiting for them for as long as they still have eligibility, many other student-athletes aren’t so fortunate. According to Branch, 22 percent of “players from top Division I basketball teams” did not have their scholarships renewed from 2008 to 2009. It is not unusual for new coaches at high-profile programs to clear from their rosters some of the undistinguished players whom they didn’t recruit.

Branch tells the story of former Rice football player Joseph Agnew whose scholarship was not renewed for his senior year. To complete his degree at Rice, Agnew would need about $35,000 to cover tuition and other expenses. Last year Agnew filed a class-action antitrust suit asking the NCAA to strike down the one-year rule.

The rule allowing universities to grant only single-year scholarships is antithetical to the NCAA’s supposed commitment to the student-athlete’s educational experience, as many athletes whose scholarships are not renewed do not finish their education.

The NCAA could replace this rule with one of two alternatives:

  1. Mandate that schools award athletic scholarships that cover the duration of an athlete’s eligibility, provided that the student-athlete adheres to certain, clearly defined athletic and academic standards (e.g. missing too many classes and/or practices could result in the loss of a scholarship).
  2. Allow coaches and administrators to choose the length of scholarship they would like to offer. For example, say that Naomi is a point guard from Chicago. Notre Dame and Purdue are both interested in her and both offer her a one-year scholarship. Xavier is also interested but, knowing that playing in the A-10 isn’t as attractive to Naomi as playing in the Big Ten or Big East, offers a 2-year guaranteed scholarship. Bradley, aware that more esteemed programs are vying for Naomi’s services, guarantees her scholarship for 4 years. Naomi can choose to attend a school that vows to pay for her to complete her degree or she can choose to attend a school that will decide after one year whether or not to offer her another scholarship.

Player likenesses and endorsements

The International Olympic Committee hasn’t paid Michael Phelps one cent for any of his 14 gold medals. But thanks to endorsements and appearance fees, Phelps has made a nice living as an elite athlete. The sanctity and pageantry of the Olympics haven’t suffered as a result.

Georgia could make money selling this A.J. Gr ... I mean #8 football jersey. A.J. Green could not.

NCAA student-athletes aren’t afforded the same opportunity. Last year the NCAA suspended Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green for selling the jersey he wore in the Independence Bowl. (Check this out, man! A.J. Green wore this in the Independence Bowl! In Shreveport! When he led the Dawgs to an 8-5 season!) Meanwhile, the University of Georgia sold all varieties of A.J. Green #8 jerseys in bookstores, stadium stores, and online. Profits from jersey sales, it goes without saying, went entirely to Georgia. None went to Green.

When I was in college, one of my roommates acquired the latest NCAA basketball game (from either EA or 989) for PlayStation. (Forgive me for forgetting the details. My video game expertise is limited to games created between 1979 and 1989 and games in which Mario is a central character.) We were delighted to learn that we could play the game as the Evansville Purple Aces, and we were surprised to find that the Evansville players so closely resembled their real-life counterparts. Even back then, before hyper-realism had pervaded sports video games, it was obvious that #50 was Kwame James. Of course, there were no names attached to the players, so the NCAA and EA or 989 could argue that #50 wasn’t supposed to be Kwame James but a fictional player who just happened to have James’s height, build, and skill set.

If video game manufacturers were already mimicking the likenesses of Evansville basketball players back in 1998, chances are they’ve been doing the same with players from Hofstra and Montana State and Middle Tennessee. While the question of whether to pay players involves a small percentage of athletes at a small percentage of schools, the questions of whether the NCAA should profit from student-athlete likenesses and whether student-athletes should also be allowed to is much bigger.

Former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon is the lead plaintiff in lawsuit against the NCAA over the use of player likenesses. Other former student-athletes, including Bill Russell, have joined this effort. Russell, who won two NCAA titles at the University of San Francisco, is featured in a “Tournament of Legends” feature on a game in EA’s NCAA Basketball series and has not be compensated for it. O’Bannon’s likeness also has appeared in video games, and both players are featured prominently in DVDs of classic games that the NCAA has for sale. Neither has seen any money from DVD sales.

Of course, both Russell and O’Bannon are suing on behalf of former student athletes. These lawsuits don’t address the question of whether student-athletes should be able to earn money from jersey and DVD sales or video game royalties while they are still on scholarship.

The problem, for current and former student-athletes alike, is that the NCAA requires all incoming athletes to sign an agreement authorizing the use of their “name or picture … to promote NCAA championships or other NCAA events, activities or programs.” While the NCAA prohibits student-athletes from profiting from their name and likeness, the NCAA and its member institutions don’t hold themselves to the same standard.

NCAA spokesperson Erik Christianson maintains (presumably with a straight face) that “to claim the NCAA profits off student-athlete likenesses is also pure fiction.” Moreover, while the NCAA does not allow college athletes to endorse products or businesses, the association has no problem requiring athletes to wear patches on their jerseys promoting Tostitos, Allstate, Chik-Fil-A, and other sponsors of games and tournaments; nor does the NCAA have a problem with schools making deals with companies such as Nike, Adidas, and Under Armor and using their student-athletes as living billboards.

Seth Davis says that, while allowing college athletes to earn money from endorsements sounds good in theory, it would be a nightmare in practice:

Then there’s the idea, promulgated by Jay Bilas among others, that athletes should have limitless opportunity to pursue ancillary marketing deals. This works much better in theory than it would in practice. Do we really want a bidding war between Under Armour and Nike to determine whether a recruit attends Maryland or Oregon? Do we want Nick Saban going into a kid’s living room and saying, “I know Bob Stoops has a car dealership who will pay you $50,000, but I can line you up with a furniture store that will give you $75,000?”

Davis is probably right. It would be a mess. The NCAA would need to put rules in place prohibiting schools and coaches from arranging endorsement deals for players. Enforcing such rules would be nearly impossible, but it would be no more cumbersome than enforcing current NCAA statutes. And just because allowing players to earn money from their names and images would be difficult doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do, especially since the NCAA has no qualms about making a buck from player names and likenesses.

The obvious beneficiaries of a rule change would be star players at high-profile programs. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see a car dealership in Omaha hire Creighton star Doug McDermott to do some commercials. Nor would I be surprised if a small-town hardware store hired the Division III cross country champion from the local college as its spokesperson.

(I wrote about this issue in more detail back in March.)

Student-athlete representation

Taylor Branch devotes a chapter in The Cartel to the history of the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) and the Olympics. For much of Olympic history the AAU held sway over the U.S. Olympic Committee and was more despotic than even the NCAA about upholding an archaic notion of amateurism. Olympic athletes, who were not allowed to accept money from endorsements or appearances, were expected to live in near poverty while they trained for the Games.

Now, of course, things are different. Most of the competitors in the Olympic basketball, hockey, and tennis tournaments are professionals, and medal-winning swimmers and gymnasts shill for Subway and Gatorade.

What changed? Representation.

In 1978 Congress passed the Amateur Sports Act, taking control of the United States Olympic team out of the hands of the AAU, establishing private governing bodies for each Olympic sport, and (most importantly) mandating that 20 percent of seats in these new governing organizations go to athletes. Athlete representation begat widespread reform, and the Olympics have not suffered as a result.

The NCAA does not give student-athletes a voice. The association regulates college athlete’s studies and finances; ut the athletes, for their part, have no representation. While Seth Davis, Taylor Branch, and Jay Bilas have differing views on how to reform the NCAA and whether or not to pay players, all three agree that the players deserve a seat at the table. Athletes should have a say in what is permissible under NCAA rules, how TV revenue is distributed, how scholarships are awarded, how many hours players should be permitted to practice, and so forth.

The conversation about whether we should pay college athletes in revenue sports is an important conversation to have, but we shouldn’t let it distract us from more pressing issues that apply to a larger number of NCAA student athletes.


Josh Tinley is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports. Follow him at twitter.com/joshtinley or send him an e-mail.

About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.


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