The NCAA needs to consider athlete compensation carefully
On Saturday, Aug. 31, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel ran through the tunnel onto Kyle Field for Texas A&M University’s season opener against Rice University. But Manziel, arguably the nation’s best player, was forced to sit on the bench until halftime due to a suspension agreed upon by both the NCAA and his university. Manziel had been accused of being paid thousands of dollars to sign autographs for a sports memorabilia dealer, a clear violation of NCAA rules that would normally lead to a player losing his collegiate eligibility. Rules prohibiting players from receiving any compensation for other people profiting off their likeness have long been considered unjust by many sports fans, but violations still usually lead to lengthy suspensions. This time, however, the NCAA could not even enforce its own unjust rule. In agreeing to suspend Manziel for only one half, the NCAA was essentially admitting that it knew he did something wrong but could not take the publicity hit of forcing its biggest star to sit out for an extended period of time.
The NCAA is losing its credibility to investigate cases just as the national outcry for reforms in the way college athletes are compensated is reaching a new peak. Massive structural changes in the way college sports operate are coming soon, and the NCAA is inevitably going to have to start paying college athletes if it wants to maintain any credibility. However, it needs to tread carefully around this issue as simply allowing universities to pay athletes outright would hurt fairness and damage the integrity of the last great amateur sports league on earth.
Traditionally, a free college education has been viewed as a fair trade for representing your school in national college athletics—at least in major sports at Division I schools. However, as college sports—particularly football—have become increasingly profitable, this traditional exchange has started to seem a lot less fair. Top-ranking schools, such as the Universities of Alabama, Florida and Texas at Austin, bring in well over $100 million a year in revenue from sports. And private companies bring in millions more from merchandising centered on players’ likenesses. College athletes, many of whom come from poor families, are forced to live off small university meal plans and housing stipends while private companies make small fortunes selling jerseys with the athletes’ names on the back. Players have begun pushing back like never before. NFL superstar and former University of Tennessee running back Arian Foster recently spoke out against the hypocrisy of athlete compensation. Players across the country have started a movement called All Players United to pressure the NCAA into reforms. College athletes recently won a class action lawsuit against EA Sports for profiting off their likenesses in video games. And the NCAA is increasingly powerless to investigate claims of players being paid—recent allegations that several former Alabama and Tennessee players received money from an agent seem unlikely ever to be investigated.
This loss of credibility has also hurt the NCAA’s ability to investigate legitimate allegations of cheating in other areas. Claims that former University of Miami booster Nevin Shapiro provided gifts, prostitutes and drugs to Miami recruits never led to any sanctions but instead to the firing of the NCAA enforcement chief. The NCAA’s national credibility is not much better than Congress’ right now, so something obviously has to be done.
However, allowing universities to pay athletes straight-up is not the way to solve the problem. One of the great things about college sports is the fact that any school, however small, can hypothetically build a strong program if it hires a great coach. If there were no cap on student-athlete pay, it would be almost impossible for smaller schools to compete with larger universities with athletics budgets in the hundreds of millions. This also ignores the fact that the vast majority of student athletes participate in sports that are much less profitable than football. Thousands of NCAA swimmers, runners, volleyball players and wrestlers give the same amount of time and energy to their schools without any hope of one day signing a million-dollar NFL contract. These players would likely be left behind if schools could pay athletes unrestricted.
If the NCAA is going to pay players, it needs to do it equitably. A better solution might be to split up merchandising and television profits from each conference and allocate some of them as a flat, uniform stipend to all student-athletes in the conference. This would allow athletes to make some extra money for their families while still preserving the integrity and fairness of college sports, one of the last true high-profile amateur sports leagues on the planet.
College athletes deserve to be paid, and recent events indicate that the NCAA is going to have to change. It would be in the interest of both the NCAA and the thousands of student-athletes practically giving their lives to their universities to be proactive and implement a fair compensation system now rather than wait and crumble under public pressure sometime in the future.