Yes, college athletes should be paid, but not as employees

Geoff Holtzman Deputy Bureau Chief, Talk Radio News Service
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Last month’s ruling by a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board granting Northwestern University athletes the right to unionize sent shockwaves through the collegiate sports universe.

Though the decision is pending appeal, it vindicates those who believe that the current amateur athletic system unfairly punishes student participants by allowing schools and the NCAA to  exploit them for achieving success either on the field, in the gym, or on the ice.

Backers of the ruling say that amateurism is an outdated principle that should no longer apply to student athletes who generate millions in revenues that are off-limits to them. Instead, they argue, athletes should have the right to collectively bargain for paid salaries and benefits.

In a piece for Grantland, Brian Phillips framed it this way:

Amateurism has never been about an ideal; it has always been about control. In the 19th century, it was used to control access to the game itself. In the 21st, in American college sports, it’s used to control the economy of the game, ensuring that profits go to the organizers rather than to the players whom fans are paying to watch. In both cases, it has more to do with class exploitation than with any remotely plausible argument about purity or values.

Phillips went on to insist that the free tuition, room and board, meals and clothes that a large percentage of college athletes receive each year does not make up for the income potential they miss out on due to the trappings of the current system. As someone who played sports for a Division III college that was prohibited from doling out athletic scholarships, I sort of disagree with Phillips. Every time I glance at my student loan balance and credit card summaries online, I think to myself how great it would have been if my school awarded me a full scholarship and covered most of my other expenses, especially since I devoted just as much time to my sport as Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter says he did.

“I sacrificed my body for four years, and they sold my jersey,” he said. “They should protect me.”

UConn standout and future NBA lottery pick Shabazz Napier said recently that he supports Colter’s quest. Napier told reporters that he often goes to bed hungry because he can’t afford to feed himself. First off, is anyone going to investigate the absurdity of Napier’s claim, or are we just going to accept it at face value? My hunch is that if Napier would bother to walk over to Gampel Pavilion, he’d discover some free food. If not, there are these things called credit cards, which I’m told can be used by college students to handle emergencies, such as a case of the midnight munchies. Given Napier’s future earning potential, I’m confident that he has all kinds of low-interest offers coming in.

The truth is I do support the premise that college athletes should be compensated. But the how is important.

Under the collective bargaining model, should the backup kicker who rarely ever plays be eligible to earn the same benefits package that the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback receives? Of course not, that would be absurd. Should schools be able to fire student athletes who don’t reach their potential on the field? That wouldn’t seem right to me.

Yet, if a school strikes gold by inking a lucrative broadcast agreement made possible only by its star-studded football roster, or if it rakes in cash by selling jerseys with those students’ numbers on the back, don’t the schools then owe it to their players? If the NCAA hauls in millions by licensing video games that feature those students’ likenesses, then maybe those athletes ought to see a little slice of the pie.

So why not let guys like Colter go out and sign product endorsement deals? Why not allow a mega star like Johnny Manziel to go out and sell autographs? Where’s the logic in prohibiting them from doing any of those things?

Of course, folks like Phillips might argue that the concept discriminates against non-athletes:

Let’s say, as a hypothetical, that you have a niece named Julie. Bright kid. Fiddling around in her dorm room junior year, she invents a new kind of combustion engine that makes cars 50 times more fuel-efficient. It’s worth a billion dollars. Julie wants to sell it to GM, but — whoops — it turns out the university owns it and she gets nothing, because she’s on an engineering scholarship. Tough break, but Julie can’t really complain, right? Because at least she got the college experience.

That may be true, but what’s stopping Julie from then writing a book about her idea and selling it? Maybe she embarks on a book tour and then inks a deal with a high-paying speaker’s bureau? The point is that Julie can explore the market if she wants to make money as a student. The same cannot be said for Julie’s peers who want to profit from their athletic abilities.

Say Nike or Adidas or Under Armour aren’t interested in creating a marketing campaign around a player like Colter because he’s not a big enough star. Nonetheless, Colter still wants to be compensated. Why not then require schools to establish trusts for their athletes, using proceeds from ticket and merchandise sales to fund the accounts? The trusts would be payable in stages in order to discourage students from leaving school early. A student who leaves school after his or her freshman year would be entitled to 20 percent of their share of the trust. Those who play two years would receive 40 percent, while those who play three seasons would receive 60 percent. Finally, those who stay all four years and graduate would receive their full share. Moreover, those who are forced to red-shirt due to injuries would maintain their eligibility for the payout.

Under this scenario, not only would student athletes have access to financial compensation, but they’d have a major incentive to earn a degree, which would in turn cushion the damage caused by injury. What a novel solution!

Now, critics of this proposal will argue that it doesn’t do anything to protect student athletes who lose their scholarships due to injury. To them, I’d say, so what? Even a player who lasts just one season in college would still end up miles and miles and miles ahead of (almost) every other classmate that goes on to graduate. No student loans and thousands in straight cash to take care of medical bills and begin a career outside of sports? I bet 95 percent of this country’s working age population would take that deal in a heartbeat.

I know I would.