4 Risks in Paying NCAA Football and Basketball Players

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It seems almost inevitable that the NCAA will eventually change its rules to allow some athletes to be paid, or at least compensated beyond a scholarship and other intangible benefits. Critics say that athletes should share in the lucrative TV, merchandising and attendance revenue that goes to the NCAA and universities. The debate has been around much longer than you’d think, dating to the early 1900s. But support for paying athletes has grown in the past year, in the wake of an FBI investigation into an alleged “pay-for-play” recruiting scheme at a handful of NCAA basketball programs, followed by a report that dozens of basketball players had allegedly received impermissible benefits. But any plan to compensate players entails some risks, and could bring unintended consequences for many athletes and universities.

A packed house at Michigan Stadium brings in millions in revenue for the university. © Peter Honeyman

4. Some Universities Would be Unable to Pay Players

In recent years the NCAA has been targeted by several lawsuits from former players seeking compensation. Without question, the NCAA rakes in revenue; the organization listed its 2016 fiscal year revenue at almost $1 billion ($996 million). Roughly 96 percent of that revenue is returned to the universities and member conferences. In addition, many big-time football and basketball programs earn tens of millions in additional revenue each year. The University of Alabama, for example, reported athletics revenue of $174 million in 2017, most of it from the school’s powerhouse football program.

While that seems like a very big pie to split and share with players, the truth is relatively few NCAA Division I athletic departments make money. A USA Today study found that only 23 of 228 Division I athletic departments at public universities made money in 2012. And that study found that 16 of those athletic departments relied on subsidies, such as student fees. Other studies have found that the number of athletic departments reporting net gains is usually fewer than two-dozen per year.

Critics say that universities claiming there is no money to pay athletes is the equivalent of a financial shell game, and that universities could pay players if they reallocated resources. For example, in most states, the highest paid public employee is a college football or basketball coach. Here’s a simplistic scenario: Why couldn’t, for example, Alabama take Crimson Tide football coach Nick Saban’s annual $11.1 million salary and split some of it among the football players? Take $5 million of that, divide it by 85 football scholarship players, and the result is an annual salary of almost $60,000. The problem of course, is that most coaches don’t earn nearly that much. At dozens of schools, the head football coach earns between $400,000 and $1 million. There’s not nearly as much excess in those athletic departments. If the NCAA were to adopt a pay system, the biggest and most successful programs would continue to thrive. Yet many schools would be forced to rely more on university funding to make ends meet. And some schools might either opt to fold their programs, or move to a lower division where athletes are not paid.


3. Many Athletes Might Be Hurt By Such a System

An argument can be made that out of the more than 30,000 DI men’s college football and basketball players, fewer than a thousand are truly marketable and make a difference between their team’s winning and losing. Everyone marvels at the skills of players such as former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley and former Louisville star Lamar Jackson. But really, the lesser-skilled offensive and defensive linemen, linebackers, special teamers, etc. on many football teams are indistinguishable from their counterparts on other teams in similar conferences. Would the superstar players, the All-Americans destined for the NBA or NFL, be satisfied accepting the same salary as a backup lineman?

Most observers expect that if a free market system is adopted, universities would offer more to entice top recruits to join their program. And with these elite talents commanding substantially more money than their teammates, some schools might decide it’s not worth even offering those lesser athletes costly scholarships, let alone pay. DI schools currently are limited to 85 football scholarships. Some observers expect that number would be reduced to around 50 if a pay plan is adopted. As Theodore Ross notes in The New Republic: “Consider the ramifications: This new, purportedly more just system would provide for the professional-quality players at the expense of the larger pool of merely elite ones. Remember that the people swept away by this capitalist tide would largely be young men from low-income backgrounds, many of whom would not qualify to attend their schools on academic merit. It is an odd remedy for exploitation that takes away access to education for significant numbers of the exploited.”


2. Pay System Could Hurt Women’s, Non-Revenue Sports

Those revenues earned by DI football and basketball teams help fund non-revenue sports such as tennis, golf, volleyball, etc. Many athletic directors and administrators predict that if schools begin paying football and basketball players, some men’s non-revenue sports, as well as women’s sports, would be dropped. Dropping women’s sports could be problematic from a legal standpoint, raising issues of gender equity under Title IX. Such moves would almost certainly prompt lawsuits.

Of course, there is another angle to consider here: Why should football and basketball players care if the women’s field hockey or lacrosse team folds? Sports labor lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, who is trying to change the NCAA’s current business model, told CBS Sports, “Where is it written that these athletes — most of whom will never have a pro career, many of whom come from impoverished backgrounds, many of whom will never get a degree out of this — where is it written they should be deprived of any economic reward so it should be distributed to someone else who didn’t contribute to the money being made?”


1. Pay Would Damage Parity, Nature of College Sports

Many observers believe that a pay system would result in an even greater division between the haves and have-nots in NCAA football and basketball. Of course, such a disparity already exists; no one could argue that, say, Coastal Carolina boasts the same caliber basketball facilities and staff as the perennial power North Carolina Tar Heels. But allowing athletes to be paid might increase that imbalance. Even President Barack Obama told the Huffington Post that paying college athletes would result in “bidding wars” that would “ruin the sense of college sports.”

As noted earlier, it seems inevitable that the NCAA’s business model will change so that athletes are compensated beyond their scholarship. Some have suggested the easiest change might be to adopt the “Olympic model” and allow players to profit from endorsements. Again, that would help the star players far more than the second-stringers. The worst thing that could happen, however, would be to rush into changing the current system without considering the implications.


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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.