Guest post by Howard L. Nixon II
Arguments in favor of “pay for play” for college athletes in big-time college sports make National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and university officials cringe. However, both groups have had to address this issue repeatedly this year in the face of media attention to the Northwestern University National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling and the O’Bannon and Kessler lawsuits about compensation for the use of names, images, and likenesses (NILs) and scholarship limits. The NCAA president has also had to testify before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee in its hearings on “Promoting the Well-Being and Academic Success of College Athletes.” In addition, there has been pressure on the NCAA from schools and the Big Five conferences to grant them more autonomy in matters such as rule-making about compensating athletes.
The NCAA does not like it when the term “compensation” is applied to college athletes. It prefers “educational support” to describe the money given to their “student-athletes” as athletic grants-in-aid or athletic scholarships. Its “collegiate model” is built on the idea of the student-athlete as an amateur playing sports for fun while pursuing an education. By defining athletes as amateur student-athletes rather than as employees, the NCAA has been able to deny scholarship athletes in its most commercialized realm the customary rights enjoyed by workers, from direct compensation or payment for their services to legal representation, freedom of movement, worker’s compensation, and the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining. These restrictions have led critics and many disinterested observers to call the NCAA a labor cartel that exploits athletes. They ask how the NCAA can credibly sustain the notion of amateurism when big-time college sports make so much money and get so much media attention as mass entertainment. However, the NCAA must try to sustain this illusion because its business model depends on it.
Defenders of the NCAA’s collegiate model and the status quo in college sports contend that athletic scholarships are more than adequate compensation for playing sports. They also point out that, for some, college sports is a stepping-stone to lucrative careers in professional sports. Then, too, there are the seemingly compelling assertions that figuring out a system to pay college athletes is not feasible, would be too complicated if it were possible, and would fundamentally destabilize the financial structure of college sports that is already threatened by the arms race.
Yet there remains the troubling reality that athletic scholarships are standardized and capped by the NCAA and may not cover the full cost of attendance. Furthermore, star athletes have not been permitted until recently to benefit from the commercial use of their NIL rights. They also have not been allowed to share directly in the media revenue generated from the games they play.
Whether and how much college athletes should be paid are legitimate and interesting questions. However, they suggest more fundamental questions about how college sports must change to be more responsive to the interests and welfare of athletes. My proposal for change is presented in the reform chapter of my recently published book The Athletic Trap: How College Sports Corrupted the Academy. A basic aspect of this proposal is the partitioning of college sports. I believe that significant change must begin with the separation of those schools that can afford to compete at the expensive, big-time level from those that cannot. If this seems unrealistic or unreasonable, consider that the churning that has whittled the Elite Six to the Big Five super conferences is a step in this direction. Giving the Big Five (or Four or Six . . . ) true autonomy to run college sports without input or interference from less competitively and financially established programs would be a big step in reorganizing college sports in a way that injects much-needed logic and reason into the enterprise. This reorganization would make the status of athletes compatible with the environment in which they are competing and the demands this environment imposes on them.
What would this partitioning look like, and what are its implications for the compensation of athletes? I propose a division of college sports into two main sectors: a highly commercialized one organized around super conferences and a second sector that would be more truly amateur and include all of the other athletic programs. The commercial partition would be populated by athlete-students, while the amateur one would have student-athletes. Former Florida and Louisiana State University president John Lombardi fleshed out a model for athletic programs in the big-time realm of the super conferences. They would be organized as not-for-profit enterprises, have ties to universities but largely run themselves, and be expected to be financially self-sufficient. University hospitals illustrate their administrative and fiscal structures. Relatively few athletic programs would meet the requirements to be run this way. Although not inherently gender segregated, the current reality is that the big-time super conference domain would initially include men’s sports because only football and men’s basketball have the capacity at this time to generate enough revenue to be self-supporting.
The organizational framework linking the big-time conferences and programs in the super conference domain would supplant the NCAA as the governing body of big-time college sports. Thus, the super conference domain I envision would be a logical extension of the autonomy currently being pursued by the Big Five conferences. The conferences and schools in this domain would operate in an environment in which revenue flows from the media and businesses in a network I call the “intercollegiate golden triangle.” The media and business sectors of this golden triangle make a profit from selling media rights and merchandise and embellish their corporate images through their association with big-time sports programs and stars. Star athlete-students are currently exploited as commodities in this environment, but in my model they are permitted to cash in on the commercial use of their NIL rights and to share in the revenue that is generated from the games they play. This means that athlete-students would become paid professionals. They would also have the legal and economic rights of employees in commercial entertainment enterprises. The NCAA president estimated that athletes competing at the most commercialized level of college sports are approximately 3.5% of all NCAA athletes. The percentage of athletes who qualify as athlete-students in the super conference domain I am proposing may be an even smaller segment of the college athlete population.
All other college athletes would be student-athletes and compete in the amateur domain governed by a “new NCAA.” This domain approximates the model of amateur college athletics in the NCAA Division III. It is what the NCAA president conjures up when he uses lofty rhetoric about the collegiate model and amateur student-athletes. Shifting the attention of his organization exclusively to the proposed amateur domain would make this rhetoric seem less disingenuous. Student-athletes in this new NCAA domain would be treated like all other students. They would compete with these other students for financial aid based on their need or academic credentials, since there would not be any athletic scholarships. They would have a chance to participate in a wide range of men’s and women’s sports programs. Unlike the semi-autonomous super conference programs that operate largely on their own, amateur programs would be part of the university or college, would be financed by general university funds, and would have much more modest athletic, financial, and status aspirations than their counterparts in the more commercial realm. Consequently, the physical and time demands on student-athletes would be far less than the demands on athlete-students.
Since the super conference and amateur domains would both be part of college sports, athletes in both domains would have to meet traditional academic expectations for initial eligibility and for classroom performance and abide by student conduct codes. However, athlete-students would have reduced academic loads for part of the academic year. They would be required to take the equivalent of one term of academic courses each year from the school for which they compete. They would not be permitted to matriculate during the academic term of their primary season. This provision should alleviate many of the current concerns about distractions from academics, since big-time athletes would not be in class during the main part of their sports season. Athlete-students would be allowed to change schools without penalty after one or two years at a particular school. This is comparable to the free agency rules in professional sports. These athlete-students could also negotiate for financial support to cover the completion of their undergraduate degrees over an extended period of time. In both domains, athletes’ interests could be represented by current and former athletes serving on governing bodies of presidents and athletic officials with ultimate authority over each domain.
Athletic directors for super conference sports would have to wrestle with issues of equity and practicality in figuring out the compensation packages for coaches and athlete-students. Pay scales would replace athletic scholarship limits for athlete-students. On the other hand, the elimination of compensation restrictions for athlete-students would make issues of illegal cash payments and gifts to athletes largely irrelevant. These financial benefits have accounted for a significant number of rule violations under the current NCAA rules. Reducing deviance in this area does not mean that all the problems concerning outside compensation will be gone. In allowing gifts from boosters and endorsement contracts, the new policies would create some challenges for athletic directors and coaches who want to restrain the influence of boosters and the intercollegiate golden triangle on athlete-students. Restrictions may be difficult to enforce, though, since boosters and the golden triangle are likely to expect substantial access as part of their quid pro quo or contract.
This is only a brief and general outline of how college sports could change to accommodate pay for play in big-time college sports. There would likely be much resistance to these kinds of changes, perhaps surprisingly mostly among the presidents with programs that have aspired to big-time status and their boosters. In fact, the elite programs in college sports in the current super conferences are already moving in the direction I have proposed, albeit without the specific changes in the status of athlete-students. However, the vast majority of college presidents will need to face the reality that they lack the resources needed to play in the domain where the big money, exposure, and branding opportunities in the intercollegiate golden triangle are found. If they genuinely care about the students who participate in sports at their institution, they should embrace the new NCAA as a way to downsize institutional aspirations in athletics and allow athletes to be genuine students. The question is whether presidents will try to free themselves from the powerful entanglements of obligations, promises, and expectations associated with being big-time in athletics or aspiring to this status. I have called these entanglements the athletic trap, and the trap has made presidents hesitant about exercising real leadership in athletics on their campus.
Presidential leadership that will result in the kinds of reforms I have proposed will take courage and a clear sense of purpose. Without this leadership, the NCAA and big-time college sports are likely to face a steady stream of challenges and threats and spend an increasing amount of time in court, Congressional hearings, and dealing with politicized athletes and their advocates. They may argue about issues such as compensation of big-time college athletes. But there are bigger and deeper issues about college athletics that need to be addressed. This is why I have proposed a reform model that gets at the underlying structure of all of college sports. Whatever the specific details of reform, trying to implement the kind of model I have proposed could make athletics at the big-time commercialized level more organizationally accountable, fiscally responsible, and responsive to the interests of athlete-students. It could also inject far more genuine amateurism into college athletics, make playing college sports more like real play for a lot more athletes, and turn more athletes into student-athletes on more campuses. Furthermore, coming to terms with the realities of contemporary college sports in the ways I have suggested could help defuse much of the discontent about the status of the NCAA and its treatment of college athletes. The result could be more sanity, honesty, and stability in college sports.