#PayThatMan: Four proposals for compensating college athletes
The college football championship shows how much money flows to successful coaches and schools — but not to the players
The injustices are too stark. The system is too compromised. The hypocrisy is too blatant. The financial figures behind Alabama’s national championship victory over Georgia on Monday night only confirm the obvious: Sooner or later, college athletes will be paid some of the billions of dollars they generate. The only question is how.
It took me a while to accept the inevitable. I still believe that a college degree represents a six-figure cash value, imparts invaluable life skills and can change lives more than cold cash can. I worry that despite the tiny odds of playing Division I football or basketball, when college players are paid even more kids will be pushed to value sports over education. Especially in poor black communities, where unrealistic athletic dreams do more damage than elsewhere.
ESPN (which owns The Undefeated) pays more than $470 million per year for broadcast rights to the football playoff games. CBS and Turner pay the NCAA $1.1 billion per year for the basketball tournament. On Monday night, companies paid ESPN more than $1 million each for 30 seconds of ad time. Both head coaches stood to pocket about $1 million in bonuses if they won the title. That’s besides the salaries of $11 million for Alabama’s Nick Saban and $3.75 million for Georgia’s Kirby Smart. Alabama’s football program collected $103.9 million in revenues for the 2016 season — and a $47 million profit.
Clearly, the money is there to pay players. It would require a wholesale restructuring of Division I sports, with the attendant winners (top male athletes) and losers (small schools, niche sports). Significant Title IX legal issues must be solved to ensure that female athletes are not discriminated against. Safeguards must ensure that players are students, not mercenaries.
This won’t be simple or easy. But sports are all about underdog stories and unexpected victories. Here are some proposals that have been circulated on how to #PayThatMan:
OPEN THE FREE MARKET
Jay Bilas of ESPN has been one of the biggest proponents of a system that would let colleges pay players any amount of money. The way Bilas and others describe it, colleges would offer contracts to players. They would need to remain in good academic standing and avoid criminal convictions to get paid. If a player wanted to leave, he would have to sit out for a year — even if he wanted to play professionally. On the flip side, players could sign with a college for one or two years instead of four, then re-up for more money if they decided to stay.
Under this scenario, some players would be paid more than others, depending on position and ability. Payment would probably increase each year that players remained in school. There would be bonuses for the postseason. A few top players might make millions in salary and endorsements — Texas A&M just gave coach Jimbo Fisher $75 million over 10 years, so imagine what another LeBron James could command — but most players would likely receive from low five to mid-six figures.
I worry it’s not realistic to expect young ballers with pockets full of cash to be serious about learning. But fear of the pay-pocalypse encourages stonewalling by what my colleague Domonique Foxworth calls the “What about?” crowd — as in, what about women athletes, or small schools, or backup punters? The “what abouters” then argue that even if the current system doesn’t work, paying players isn’t the right solution — or, ironically, a “fair” one.
“As issues arise, which they will, we can add regulations to address them,” said Foxworth, a former college and NFL athlete and advocate for paying players. “But college sports has completely transformed from what it was when the idea of amateurism was created. And the only reason some people don’t see the ridiculousness of this system is because this is just the way it has always been.”
One of the most detailed proposals comes from Bloomberg News columnist Joe Nocera. To avoid concentrating too much power at the richest schools, Nocera suggests a salary cap for men’s Division I teams: $650,000 for basketball and $3 million for football, with a minimum annual salary of $25,000. This system would spread talent more evenly across college sports. Players also would receive lifetime health insurance, and a percentage of TV and marketing revenue would be set aside for players after they’ve left school.
I’m most enthusiastic about Nocera’s proposal that players be allowed to finish their degrees for free within eight years. Athletes devote 40 to 50 hours per week to their sports, which poses a challenge to academic success. Athletes have been prevented from pursuing certain majors because classes would conflict with practice, or because it could be too rigorous on top of a full-time “job.” Nocera’s eight-year degree plan addresses what I believe is the biggest injustice of college sports: The system is rigged against them getting a real education.
Ramogi Huma, founder of the National College Players Association, which advocates for the rights of college athletes, says setting money aside for players to receive later is much more popular with the public than cash on the table and would emphasize the educational mission of college sports. It probably wouldn’t be legal to require graduation for payment. But adding a financial incentive to degree completion would be karmic payback for decades of institutional indifference to the educational outcomes of college athletes.
Huma said he believes there also is more public support for a program in which all players receive the same amount of money, set by each team or conference. A key part of the association’s proposed framework would follow the route taken by the Olympics when the idea of amateurism proved illogical. It begins with allowing athletes to be compensated for signing autographs and endorsements, which would eliminate some of the scandals that plague college sports.
“Look at the bigger picture,” Huma said. “The NCAA generates $12 billion tax-free per year. They get this money tax-free because of their educational mission,” but too many players fail to graduate under the current system.
THE Historical basketball LEAGUE
The newest and most provocative idea on the market is to have historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) form their own pro basketball league, funded by investors. As proposed by economist Andy Schwarz, attorney Richard Volante and journalist/author Bijan Bayne, the league would offer the best high school players salaries of between $50,000 and $100,000 per year, plus health insurance and a 401(k) plan. HBCUs would provide free tuition, room and board, as they currently do.
The league would pursue the best high school players (one-and-dones and McDonald’s All-Americans) and put them on TV. The season would run from Juneteeth to Labor Day, to better balance academics and take advantage of a lull in the existing sports calendar. The schools would present these summer teams as a “club” sport, separate from (or possibly in addition to) the HBCUs’ existing NCAA-sanctioned teams. That way, HBCUs could collect revenue from both the league and the NCAA.
Schwarz consulted for former basketball star Ed O’Bannon in his case against the NCAA, which ended with a court decision that the NCAA violates antitrust rules but cannot pay athletes beyond the full cost of attendance. The proposed league is aimed at a segment of Division I college sports suffering most under the current model. Chronically underfunded HBCUs don’t have the resources or facilities to attract and retain top talent, which means they languish at the bottom of college basketball in terms of wins and revenues.
The Historical Basketball League is seeking investors and schools. It projects initial operating costs of $60 million per year, with $9 million in profits coming from ticket sales, TV rights and sponsorships. They hope NBA stars will “adopt” individual schools’ teams and support them financially.
It’s a tantalizing concept. A small group of NBA megastars could make it happen overnight. But a major goal of the league is simply to disrupt the status quo and force action: to serve as an “experiment of social change.” Schwarz and his partners realize that the NCAA could instantly put them out of business by simply deciding to pay athletes — which they would consider a victory.
This story has been changed to correct the names of the Historical Basketball League and the group Ramogi Huma founded to advocate for reforms as well as the spelling of Andy Schwarz’s name.