Should NCAA Student-Athletes be Paid: A Debate

Last night as I sat down to edit next week’s edition of our weekly newsletter, the Syllabus (click here to subscribe to the Syllabus), I found myself engaged in a contested debate with some good friends from college. The topic: should college athletes be allowed to profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL)? While that may be a “yes or no” question, the overall situation is far more complex as many members of the group (myself included) are beginning to understand. What is clear though is that in this debate there tend to be 4 different types of people which I will outline in this table. 

NameOpinion
Free-MarketersSchools and their donors should be allowed to pay the players as much as they want. Let free-market capitalism run its course.
Regulated MarketersPlayers should be able to profit off their NIL, however there should be regulation as to who is paying them.
RealistsWhile student-athletes should be able to profit off their NIL, which players will get compensated? The circumstances surrounding compensation are so intricate that there is no easy solution.
BoomersAthletes already get an education so they shouldn’t receive any additional compensation.

While I consider myself more of a “regulated marketer” I do tend to side with a few of the arguments the “realists” make. Let’s examine jersey sales. Sorority girls and frat stars love to strut around in the jersey of their school’s biggest athletic superstar. For Duke, it was students walking around in Zion Williamson jerseys. This past year, if you went down to Baton Rouge, LA you were greeted with a barrage of white and gold #9 Joe Burrow jerseys. Did Mr. Williamson or Mr. Burrow receive a dime for their marketability? I think you know the answer. However, this is where the conversation gets incredibly tricky. How would an athlete get compensated for a jersey sale?

Let’s use Johnny Manziel as an example. We all remember Johnny Football frantically running around defenders then finally throwing a prayer up to receiver Mike Evans who would somehow make the catch? Manziel was a household name. Make a trip to College Station and notice how he is revered like the second coming of Christ. His #2 jersey is everywhere. Let’s say he began getting paid a percentage of every jersey Texas A&M sold with his name on it. What would the offensive lineman who protected his blindside have to say? Or even star receiver Mike Evans who made several miracle catches that turned rather errant throws into touchdowns? I’m fairly certain those players would all say they played a role in Manziel becoming a star and a highly marketable player. Therefore, they too are going to want a piece of the action. So how would those players get paid? While the players from the 2012 Texas A&M football team have long graduated, how would allowing star players to profit off jersey sales affect team chemistry. When QB Trevor Lawrence is raking in money from jersey sales but his offensive linemen or receivers aren’t wouldn’t that negatively affect team morale? I don’t possess all the answers but I do know that whole situation could get messy.

Further, I don’t think players using their social media accounts to make money is as cut and dry as people think. Who is paying these athletes to post on their social media accounts? If the school directly pays the athlete to post on their Instagram account would that be considered direct compensation? Additionally, schools like Ohio State or Georgia with large athletic department budgets could potentially use that as a recruiting tool. They could possibly tell a recruit that they’d be able to offer them money for social media posts once they develop a large enough following. This would give them an advantage over mid-major schools such as Cincinatti or Memphis who do not have such deep pockets.

However, isn’t there already a gap in inequality between athletic departments? Larger institutions that are known for their strong athletic departments tend to have nicer facilities and better coaches that are used to recruit the most talented athletes. Would allowing a collegiate athlete to profit off their NIL drastically change this already large gap in inequality between schools? I find it hard to believe. Let’s take it a step further and look at the top schools in college basketball and football every year. For basketball, you typically see Duke, Kentucky, Louisville and Michigan State atop the rankings year in and year out. For football, it’s Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and Ohio State. The top football talent is headed to these institutions because the amenities, such as the nicer facilities and better coaches, at these schools give these athletes the best chance to make it to the NFL. Not to mention, playing in the SEC, Big 10 or even Big 12 allows these athletes to face the stiffest competition that resembles what they will possibly face at the next level.

We see the same schools competing for championships in those two sports every year. I don’t think compensating athletes for their NIL would really change that. Football teams such as UCONN or South Florida probably weren’t going to land 5-star recruits to begin with. In fact, allowing athletes to profit off their NIL could actually be a playing card mid-major schools could use in their favor. Coaches could meet with a 4-star recruit and tell them: “Hey, you may not play your first couple years at a school like Alabama. But if you come to my school, you will immediately play and could become the face of the school. You could profit off your social media accounts right away and could even have local businesses wanting to endorse you.” That may sound like a much better alternative to a 4-star recruit who would undoubtedly not see the field for the first couple years at a blue-chip school. Bottom line: there is already an inequality gap in terms of recruiting and landing the top high school prospects so allowing athletes to profit off their NIL wouldn’t drastically alter the landscape of college football or basketball.

Lastly, athletes are getting paid by donors. We’re lying to ourselves if we don’t think it’s happening. Sports’ betting, too, is prohibited in most states yet the gaming industry rakes in billions a year. But some states are coming to their senses and passing laws that legalize sports betting. If it’s going to happen anyways why not legalize it and be able to tax it? Imagine the tax dollars that would come from large university donors who are giving these players cars, money and in some cases even houses. Further, legalization means high regulation. Allow donors to directly pay student-athletes and highly regulate it. Once again, I’m not advocating for student-athletes to be able to receive compensation from donors, however let’s not pretend it isn’t already happening. 

While the previous paragraphs may say otherwise, my position on the matter is quite clear. If the NCAA is going to designate collegiate athletes as “STUDENT-athletes” they should be allowed the same rights as their other classmates. These rights include the ability to profit off social media or sign marketing deals. If not, then the NCAA should assign a new name to college athletes because it has not viewed them as “students” first in quite some time.

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