New CA law prompts long overdue look at NCAA rules

Former Duke stars Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett were both selected in the top three picks of the NBA draft after only one season at Duke. Top players like these generate far more revenue for their schools than the value they receive in scholarships. Courtesy kmhairston via flickr

Last week, the state of California passed a law allowing collegiate student-athletes to accept endorsements and work with agents, something they have never been allowed to do before. NCAA guidelines specifically stipulate that players are not allowed to be paid in exchange for using their name and image for advertising purposes or hire agents for the purpose of promoting their athletic careers (The New York Times, “Paying College Athletes: Answers to Key Questions on New Law,” 09.30.2019). Thus, this new California law directly conflicts with NCAA regulations, and has the potential to create serious problems if these contradictions are not swiftly resolved. The law is the first of what will likely be many attempts to compensate college athletes for the immense money they bring to their institutions, a payment that has long been overdue.

With the current NCAA rules, college athletes do not receive any financial support other than scholarships. At first glance, this system makes sense. Were athletes to receive salaries, or some other form of incentives for attending certain schools, the schools more capable of giving these gifts would have a leg up in the recruiting process. This would result in consistently better teams for richer schools. Collegiate athletics is also just that: collegiate. The whole idea of college sports is to give amateur players the opportunity to continue playing and, in rarer circumstances, prove their skills to professional teams. To pay college players would be, by definition, to turn them into professional players, thus negating the purpose of college athletics.

However, it cannot be ignored that players in top-tier Division I programs are personally responsible for bringing millions of dollars to their schools. And that’s not to mention the money earned through television rights and the advertising surrounding games. According to the University of Alabama, its football team grossed about $108 million in 2018, under head coach Nick Saban (who will make $8.7 million in 2019). This lofty salary is representative of the value Alabama puts on the continued success of its football program, and its importance to the earnings and image of the school. Therefore, a measly $30,000 scholarship to a player equally or more important than Saban to the success of that football program is markedly disproportionate, especially when many institutions have the liberty to drop players if they get hurt or do not perform up to expectations.

Many college teams are already only one step removed from being professional. Other than baseball, where players play in the minor leagues before making their professional debuts and are not required to attend college, many football and basketball players go to school for the sole purpose of then going pro. The NBA mandates players spend at least one year in college, while the NFL raises the bar to three. The high number of players that only attend for those required years shows the multitude of pro-ready players wasting time playing in college. And of course, there’s the open athletic secret that some student-athletes are far from typical students at their universities. The average Duke student scores about a 1485 on their SAT (PrepScholar, “Duke SAT Scores and GPA,” 2018). Their 2008 basketball team managed a measly average of 968 (Mercury News, “Stanford vs. Duke basketball: The difference in admissions standards,” 11.05.2008). Ideally student-athletes would be held to the same standard as the rest of the student body, but these players were not at Duke to be students. They were there to be professional athletes. Duke’s last championship brought in $31 million, and it could not hurt to give the players who earned it something in return.

While the numbers regarding top-tier Division I schools are quite clear, the debate over paying athletes is not simple. Firstly, quantifying how much a player is worth is very difficult. Obviously players in smaller, less-prestigious athletic programs would not earn the same money as their top-tier counterparts, but where should the line be drawn? I do not think anyone would argue that Vassar athletes should be paid (and I speak as one myself), but where does the line start?

These questions and so many more need to be hashed out before college players can be properly rewarded for their efforts on the field. This controversial California law now forces NCAA officials to act, and it will only push the issue forward toward the compensation athletes deserve.

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