Name, Image, Likeness: College athletes crack open the door to compensation

By Taylor Corley, Columnist

The NCAA’s March Madness saw the Kansas Jayhawks and the South Carolina Gamecocks take home the titles in, respectively, the men’s and women’s tournaments. There were a lot of notable players who contributed to the spectacle that is those tournaments, and they brought us, as spectators, exciting games and plenty of upsets.

Last year, according to the NCAA’s own financial statements, March Madness generated $1.15 billion in revenues, yet the athletes took home none of it.

But change is in the air.

The Supreme Court decided last year that college athletes could sign endorsement deals, trading use of their name, image or likeness (NIL) for money. This ruling meant that this year’s March Madness marked the first time the players could be compensated for at least some of the value they bring to college sports’ single biggest money-maker.

It might seem absurd that student-athletes had to fight to make money off of their own names, until you consider other inequities. This was the first year, for example, that the women’s tournament was also branded under the expansive March Madness corporate umbrella. And who can forget the 2021 tournament when Stanford University sports performance coach Ali Kershner posted a photo comparing the weight room set-up for the NCAA women’s and men’s basketball tournaments, a social media post that compared the rows of power racks with Olympic bars and weights for the men against a set of dumbbells and yoga mats for the women. Oregon star Sedona Prince took it from there:

While the NIL court ruling is a huge win off the court for student-athletes, the fight is not over. The women’s tournament does not receive as much coverage as the men’s games. That lack of attention trickles all the way down, because without enough exposure, the female athletes can’t attract the same endorsement deals.

Taking it a step further, there are athletes who play other sports at the Division I level who will never see even a fraction of the money that basketball or football players can attract.

Football players earned more than 50 percent of the revenues generated by NIL deals from July 1 last year to Feb. 28 of this year. Women’s track and field came in last with less than 1 percent. Falling in the middle was women’s volleyball at 2.4 percent, or the same as women’s swimming and diving. Baseball clocked in at only 1.4 percent.

These disparities track with levels of funding and TV exposure, which also is no surprise.

The universities clearly exploit the fact that athletes want to play on sports’ biggest stages. They want to perform to the best of their abilities, and, in many cases, they are willing to sacrifice their education, social lives and health.

No system should make pawns out of what essentially is merely a means of entertainment. Payment and compensation should be only the beginning. And most student athletes are not asking for a professional’s salary. They are not asking for millions. They are asking for fair compensation for their life’s devotion, and for the risks they take in competing.

Division I athletes dedicate an average of 35 hours per week in-season to their sport, according to a 2017 NCAA survey. That’s the functional equivalent of a full-time job with an hour for lunch. At minimum wage, these athletes could make around $1,000 a month, is a substantial amount of money they are missing out on because they neither have time for a job nor are they allowed income as scholarship athletes.

I celebrate the win that came with the start of NIL deals, but there are still gaps in the system that deserve our attention, even a fraction of the attention we give to our favorite players and teams. It’s a question of fairness.

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