Opinion: If student athletes have to play through a pandemic, pay them

Author: Uri Uziel

With billions of dollars on the line, the return of pro sports will prove just how much money talks at the intersection of business and athletics. The commissioners and senior executives of every sporting institution would move heaven and earth to insure a safe completion of a season.

We’ve already seen hints that sports will come back in a big way. Since the cancellation of all sports in mid March, there have been two events with relation to the core four American sports: the NFL Draft and ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary series. Draft night 2020 was the single most watched draft in the history of sports The Last Dance was raking in over five million views nightly. When sports do come back, even without the revenue stream of tickets and concessions, they’ll provide some of the most sought after advertisement space available on television.

The NBA stands to lose over $900 million if the bubble collapses before the start date of July 29th. NFL teams could lose out on $100 million per team just by not having fans. And for the NCAA conferences that choose to conduct sports in the fall, hundreds of millions of dollars in media rights, tickets, and royalties are on the line. The twelve most veteran schools in the Big Ten received a $54 million payout based on TV agreements with ESPN and Fox Sports. In 2019, media rights represented 27% of the Big Ten’s revenue and without tickets, concessions, and in-stadium merchandising, that number will balloon. Now that the product is restricted purely to what the athletes can produce, their value to the industry has never been so important. The NCAA has a chance to finally prove how important these college students are to them and the industry of sports: pay the players!

It doesn’t immediately make sense. Why start paying players now that revenue streams are disappearing? And with college football’s movement toward conference-insulated schedules, athletic conferences across the countries will incur the costs of creating safe playing environments.

The accommodations that professional leagues are making in the hopes of completing a season could be replicated by the NCAA to a certain extent. Like with the NBA and NHL, conference or division bubbles could be arranged. A Big Ten West bubble and a Big Ten East bubble, for example. Or, as with MLB, schools could play against only the closest schools and compete in a makeshift conference playoff.

In doing so, the NCAA would be taking their hallowed principle of amateurism and firmly, decisively, setting it on fire.

Amateurism in sports has always been a tricky game of competitive integrity and product differentiation. Between 1896 and 1992, no professional athletes—any athlete receiving compensation on the grounds of their sport—of any kind were allowed to participate in the Olympics. This came from the belief that being a professional takes away from the livelihood of the sport and the investment of the fan. However, nations, players, and the International Olympic Committee gave room for obvious loopholes in the application of the amateurism rule.

In 1988, Oscar Schmidt averaged 42.3 points a game for the Brazilian national basketball team while making $500,000 a year from S.C. Juventus Caserta in the Italian First Division. Between 1956 and 1988, the Eastern Bloc created the Frankensteinian monster that is the state sponsored full-time amateur athlete, allowing athletes listed as students or mechanics to be paid by the state to train in their sport. But in 1912, for the crime of playing three years of professional baseball, Jim Thorpe was stripped of his gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon.

For one, the IOC’s definition of amateurism—as loose as the door policy at Plaza—guaranteed that U.S. athletes (all true amateurs until the 1992 Barcelona Games) would get the short end of the Olympic competitive balance. No matter how good 20 year olds were, 30 year olds being paid by their country have more resources, time, and experience. More importantly, by allowing loopholes in their amateur clause, anyone who didn’t or couldn’t actively use those loopholes became the true amateurs. By 1988, “amateur” was whittled down to teenagers and college athletes exclusively.

The International Olympic Committee’s invention of amateurism made sure that the product of “Olympics” was put ahead of the purpose. The Pandora’s box that was the 1992 Barcelona Olympics reset the Olympic commitment to amateurism, but by this point the concept took on a life of its own. Needless to say, the NCAA took extensive notes on how the International Olympic Committee controlled—or didn’t control—their athletes. When the IOC no longer had to worry about amateurism en large, the NCAA took the memo and used it to monopolize college athletics.

Whereas the NCAA is starting to see meaningful competition from the NBA G-League, college football is the only pipeline for high school football players to reach the NFL. On top of that players are required to stay in college for at least three years before turning pro. It’s a system designed to control as much of the product—the players—as much as possible.

With no chance of concession or ticket revenue being part of the NCAA money making equation, players have more control over their play than ever before. They represent 100% of whatever product is available come autumn. And with the unlikely chance of returning in-person instruction, the claim that student-athletes are students rather than athletes loses whatever logic it falsely apheld.

Not that the NCAA has a long history of utilitizing its common sense. In the words of former Ohio State quarterback and 2014 National Champion Cardale Jones, “We ain’t come to play SCHOOL.” The most recent major lawsuit against the NCAA, O’Bannon v. NCAA, proves how nonsensical the NCAA’s logic is. The 2014 verdict to the case ruled that the NCAA definition of amateurism defied antitrust laws set by the Sherman Antitrust Act. Judge Claudia Wilkins ruled that college football and basketball players were due a $5,000 payout for every year the university used their NIL to be received after the completion of their undergraduate degree.

While this was a major step in the direction of players being compensated for their NIL, what does it mean? Where does that figure of $5,000 come from? There still isn’t a firm system set to properly compensate college athletes that don’t graduate, a path that many of the superstars that would benefit most from updated NIL policies choose. The NCAA just refuses to pay their most valuable commodities, hiding behind a label of amateurism that never really existed.

The main argument against paying players is that amateurism differentiates college athletics from their professional counterparts. That athletes aren’t paid is what creates the intrigue, is what the NCAA will have you believe.

Now search “Jadaveon Clowney vs Michigan Outback Bowl 2013” and tell me that amateurism is the selling point of NCAA football. Not the otherworldly instincts and athleticism. Not the superstars that ESPN has been marketing since their first year on varsity.

The NCAA is now confronted with an unprecedented chance to add another clause to the legal standing of amateurism. If a student has to represent their university almost exclusively in the name of preserving as much revenue as possible, they should get a slice of the pie. Giving political exemptions during the height of a pandemic to a highly specialized group of people so that the general public gets to see a ball moved up and down a field puts a dildo right in the golden orifice of amateurism.

I remember in 2013 I picked up the Times magazine that my mom always ordered and read a piece by Sean Gregory about the necessity of paying college players. Then Duke forward Jabari Parker was deemed as being worth over a million dollars for his NIL. In the greatest era of player empowerment across the United States sports canvas, and in a time where sports are both needed more than ever and seem utterly useless, this number feels awfully small. The monopoly-turned-cartel that is the NCAA has always fancied itself to be the perfect environment for sports and higher education to coexist. This will be the ultimate test of that ideal.