All Play and No Work?

By J. T. Eggert, columnist

The Spectacle of March Madness
Photo via Flickr Creative Commons license

The NCAA rakes in more than $1 billion from March Madness, including media rights fees, ticket sales, corporate sponsorships and television ads. March Madness lasts three weeks. The players receive nothing but the often-empty promise of a “free” education.

As a student athlete myself, I would love to weigh in on the topic.

The blanket statement made by the NCAA is always that the “student-athletes” are not employees, they are students. If this were functionally true, then, yes, I completely agree that the NCAA has no obligation to pay the “student-athletes.”

Students sign away their rights to pay via a 400-page document that confirms that they will remain amateur athletes until they leave their universities and colleges. Has a student athlete ever read these 400 pages to which they are contractually agreeing? Probably not many. But this is what we must agree to in order to compete in collegiate athletics.

The NCAA will continue to rake in billions from what is a patently unfair system, refusing to share even a single dollar with its “non-employee” employees.

It seems very similar to a sports gambler betting on Greyhound racing. Would you expect the gambler to share his or her winnings with the Greyhound?

Even if the NCAA miraculously agreed to allow college athletes to be paid, even a stipend, it would be difficult deciding who gets what. Could every athlete in NCAA Division I get an even slice of the pie? Would it be divided up equally among the schools? Should playing time be a factor? Whether the sport is revenue or non-revenue? Should Zion Williamson make the same as a Berry College baseball player? Probably not, but who is to decide?

If the NCAA decided to start allowing checks to be cut, it could create more problems than it would solve.

As we know, huge Division I programs are benefitting just as handsomely as the NCAA, at least a few of them. The rest are engaged in an arms race to try to break into that rarified air of perennial title contenders.

A title-winning season in basketball or football brings attention to the school, which enjoys big increases in out-of-state (or full retail) applications for admission, alumni donations, political favoritism, and, of course, revenues. Since the Nick Saban era of national titles began at Alabama, the school’s application numbers have steadily risen. In 2018, after upsetting national champion Alabama and national runner-up Georgia, Auburn saw a 21 percent increase in applications for admission.

So maybe giving the “student-athletes” a free education is enough. These athletes benefit from having the best tutors at the school, flexibility on attendance and assignment submission times, and even are graded with varying degrees of favoritism. Of course, these are also reasons why a system that most agree is corrupt is so criticized. Scandals abound: Athletes enrolled in “paper classes” to boost grades. Some athletes suing on the grounds that they did not, in fact, receive the education that they were promised. (Just Google “UNC football” and “Swahili.”)

As a national system of education, colleges and universities have to ask themselves, “What is more important in exchange for the commercial exploitation of our athletes? Actually delivering on a quality education, or handing out pieces of paper that say the ‘student-athlete’ is credentialed in his or her discipline or field?

The NCAA and its member institutions shouldn’t necessarily be obligated to pay athletes, no matter how much revenue they bring both the NCAA and the colleges. That said, student-athletes should be able to earn money without running afoul of that 400-page contract.

If people are willing to pay college athletes for their autographs, endorsements, appearances, and sports camps, those athletes should be able to collect. The NCAA should not own every right to every aspect of an athlete’s commercial value, especially if these athletes aren’t employees.

Allowing players capitalize on their performances, names, and likenesses would be an alternative to having to divide up the college athletics revenue pie fairly. Once these athletes leave their schools, this is the commercial world they enter anyway.

The smartest, most talented players can find a way to profit from their abilities, while the less business savvy, less talented players still get that otherwise free education. Welcome to the real world.

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