Several months ago, PBS exposed some pretty glaring hypocrisy from the NCAA in their Frontline piece: Money and March Madness. (I highly recommend watching this.) While the organization insists college athletes be called “student athletes,” the NCAA makes billions of dollars on the backs of these very talented students. From TV contracts to packed gymnasiums, college basketball and football are huge money makers at the top tier universities. The revenues from these sports are used to help fund other sports, subsidize academic programs, and help pay for the scholarships for the student-athletes.
There are arguments for and against allowing/requiring schools to pay the players a portion of the profit. As I have carefully considered the arguments, I believe there is a middle ground that will ultimately help alleviate some of the less-than-ethical practices (and hypocrisy) surrounding these high profile athletes in the college game.
Should colleges and universities be expected to pay players? Absolutely not. But I think there is a compelling argument for allowing these athletes (who also happen to be students) to market themselves and earn money based on their talents while in school. I understand that many of these students are already being compensated well. Full tuition and books, room and board, and even small food stipends are all part of the package for a percentage of the higher profile players.
Also consider this: they spend morning, afternoon and evening in the gym. They have two-a-day practices, rigorous travel schedules, media requests, campus events, and, in between, classes and homework. Many do not come from means. There are strict rules about how much these students can make when working during the summer–more often than not spent in the gym, again, helping with their coach’s basketball camps.
While the camps are very lucrative to the coach (as are some of the endorsement deals, media contracts, etc.–all legal under the NCAA rules), the players are under tight restrictions about how much they can make for their time work in these camps and other summer jobs. The NCAA maintains that student athletes cannot make more than “incidental expenses” during the course of the academic year (ranging up to around $2,000). Looking at the Stanford University athletic department summer/work reference page for student-athletes, it’s clear these athletes are under a very different set of rules than your typical student.
The rules make sense in a vacuum: a kid shouldn’t be wooed to a university with promises of making big bucks from the school. That’s where boosters can come and the unethical underbelly of the recruiting process starts. But some of these summer/academic year work rules are ridiculous.
When I was an undergrad taking broadcast journalism classes at Gonzaga University, I worked at the local NBC affiliate on the weekends. I helped edit video, make beat calls, grabbed video of breaking news and anything else I could help with. Despite being a broadcast journalism major, I never once needed to be concerned with how much I was making, when I was working, or who I was getting the money from. I was getting paid for utilizing the skills I had by a professional organization I could have very well ended up working for upon graduation.
I also had roommates who were crazy-smart, anal-retentive accountants who made great money traveling to New York and working for one of the “Big 5” accounting firms during the summer without batting an eye.
I was marketable to the TV station. My roommates were marketable to the accounting firms. In the same way, many of these players are marketable to local high schools who want to hold an impactful basketball camp, or local Ma and Pa retailers who would like to make a the college hoops star their spokesperson. Why shouldn’t they be able to gain compensation from these opportunities?
It’s a win-win for multiple reasons:
- The student-athlete gets real-life lessons in marketing him or herself. They learn the business, the process, and how to leverage their talents in the same way any other college student is able to do.
- This would take the compensation question out of the hands of the schools and put it into the hands of the athletes. Of course, they would have to prove their efforts were their own and not that of the university.
- Students in marketing, PR, or other disciplines would also be able to collaborate with these athletes, so the process is not only benefitting the players.
One of the obvious questions about this fix would be about the gap between the big and small schools. Someone going to UNC or UCLA might benefit more from a plan like this, and create a gap between the haves and have-nots of college basketball or football teams.
I disagree. Because the money the athletes make is predicated on how the athlete chooses to market him or herself, where the student goes shouldn’t matter (as much). While you may have some of the biggest names trying to find schools with higher exposure (e.g. UNC or Duke) or bigger markets (e.g. LA or New York), it wouldn’t be any worse than it is now. Just take a look at why Kevin Love and OJ Mayo went to UCLA and USC respectively–exposure.
So for the blue-chippers, we might see longer stays at schools. If they are able to make good money on their own, they may not be as worried about coming out 2 or 3 years early out of fear they’ll miss their NBA money-window.
At the same time, a 3 or 4 star recruit can go to a Butler (Indianapolis) and be a star in that market. Kids who are smart and want to be a big fish in a small pond can go to a University of Portland where they could be the top talent.
Ultimately, I think the rules need to change so that these “student-athletes” can be like any other student and make money based on their skills and how they market those skills. They happen to be very good at what they do. So good, the Universities can charge a boat-load of money for fans to watch them do what they do. These students should be afforded the same opportunity to benefit in a similar way. They are, after all, bringing that money in. No one is going to the games to watch the cheerleaders…(they go other places for that, where those girls can market themselves and make the money they need to work their way through school. Just sayin’.)
Sean Ryan is a former TV reporter and currently a social media strategist at a Fortune 30 company. A lifelong Minnesota sports fan, he’s been told he’s worth a million dollars in nickles and dimes. He still thinks that’s a compliment. Follow him on Twitter (@seanryan25)