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3 Solutions to Pay College Athletes

In the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary series about the “Fab Five” at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s, Jalen Rose mentioned the hypocrisy of the NCAA when it comes to student athletes. Specifically, the university would literally sell anything they could around the school’s basketball program and the five-star freshmen, while the latter group didn’t receive a single penny in return, and often had to scrounge up whatever money they could – from wherever they could get it – to have enough cash to buy something a simple as a slice of pizza.

Major collegiate athletics programs – like the University of Michigan, in this instance – go out of their way to use top student-athletes to attract more college applicants (resulting in more revenue), fill up their stadiums (resulting in more revenue), and sell merchandise of their athletic program (resulting in more revenue). And yet, not only do student-athletes not receive a penny of these funds, but they’re also strictly forbidden from earning any form of revenue in general, lest they want to forfeit their status as amateur athletes.

“Should student-athletes get paid” is one of the longest on-going debates in the college sports world. Proponents will tell you that colleges are exploiting young men and women for their own financial gains. Detractors will tell you that student-athletes are getting a tangible – and enormous – financial benefit, in the form of the scholarship that pays for their college education.

There has to be a middle ground to this. To that end, here are three potential solutions to solving the “salary” debate for college athletes.

School-Issued Stipends

The most commonly-discussed option that simultaneously represents the easiest and most complicated answer, the familiar refrain from people around the “paying college athletes” discussion has been to provide student-athletes with some stipend that effectively amounts to payment for their participation in athletes (even if it’s not named as such).

This makes sense on multiple levels. While the counter-argument has always been “their stipend is the free education they’re getting,” there are plenty of high-performing high school students who receive “free ride” scholarships to that same school. The difference is, the latter won’t be immediately contributing to the millions of dollars a school — or more specifically, its athletic program — will generate from their efforts. Accordingly, it would make sense to further reward those students who bring such financial returns.

Further, we tend to overlook the fact that most student-athletes are broke college students, just like the rest of the non-sports-playing population. More often than not, when they’re slipped a $20 bill here or a $50 bill there from the countless number of people who are loyal to their particular college program, those funds are used for things like chipping in for pizza or buying a round of drinks for friends. While we might see that as a trivial amount of money, ask any college student what an additional $50 per week would do for their “college livelihood.”

Now, this does open up the proverbial can of worms, regarding the number of such stipends, and which athletic programs are entitled to them. A school that generates gobs of revenue from its top money-making teams would potentially have an unfair advantage compared to a smaller school with a less prominent athletic program.

Solutions to this could be anything from a revenue-sharing type situation, where each school gets a certain amount of money based on the revenue generated by the conference or even the division itself, to divvying up the amount of money they receive from things like ticket sales or merchandise revenue.

Earnings Off Their Own Likeness Or Brand

Riddle me this: Isn’t the whole point of college to receive the education and develop the needed skills to be a contributing member of “the working world?” Assuming so, isn’t it somewhat hypocritical for colleges to penalizing students from starting successful entrepreneurial ventures?

The NCAA has rules that student-athletes can no longer be considered amateur athletes if they receive any income based on their likeness. Even in situations where a student-athlete establishes a self-generated revenue stream that doesn’t rely on the reputation and reach of their school, they’re still not allowed to receive that money.

This has been an ongoing argument for decades. In 2004, University of Colorado wide receiver Jeremy Bloom was denied eligibility to play football because he had earned money as an Olympic skier. More recently, University of Central Florida kicker Donald De La Haye was deemed ineligible because he had generated money from videos he had made on YouTube, even though a large portion of the earnings had come even before he joined the UCF football team. Because the United States legal system has effectively deemed the NCAA a private organization, it allows them to have greater jurisdiction — and restriction — on what a student-athlete can and can’t do.

This is an old rule that should continue to be challenged, based on the world we live in today. Specifically, the proliferation of social media has allowed individuals — and especially student-athletes — to become influencers based on their likeness, interests, and content, irrespective of where they live or where they go to school. Zion Williamson had over a million followers on Instagram before he chose to go to Duke University; while he’s a unique case, concerning following, he’s not the only student-athlete to be well-known before they ever commit to a University.

Simply put: the NCAA is penalizing student-athletes from earning revenue as individual entities because the NCAA wants to monopolize all the revenue that’s there to be earned.

Distribution Of Donations To The Athletic Department

Here’s a novel idea: what if a portion of the money that is being donated to a given school’s athletic program – which often range in the hundreds of millions of dollars — actually went to the athletes themselves?

The premise is simple: schools already disclose how much money they receive each year, in the form of donations to the athletic program. Moving forward, 50% of those funds go to the upkeep of the athletic program (including building new facilities and paying the salaries of coaches), and the other 50% goes directly to the athletes themselves.

Adding a layer of nuance to this: each school then takes that latter revenue split (designated for the athletes), and then divvies up said number across each athletic team, based on the revenue that particular sport has generated for the school overall.

College sports – football and basketball in particular – tend to have the most passionate fans, if not rabidly so. So why not allow those fans to put their money where their mouth is? If they want an opportunity to either directly improve the quality of one of the school’s athletic programs, or ensure that their school’s sport of preference remains among the country’s best, it becomes largely contingent upon how much they donate to the school.

This would give each fan the opportunity to both improve the quality of their alma mater’s athletic program, but also fund the “war chest” that each university has to recruit the best athletes. Further, it puts the onus on the teams – and student-athletes – to also market themselves. If more people show up, and more sponsors spend on them, there’s more money to be made.

Critics might argue that the most passionate fans, who would pony up the money, belong to basketball and/or football powerhouse schools in conferences like the SEC (football) or ACC (basketball). But if you give it some thought, the wealthiest donors – meaning the ones who potentially have the most money to donate – might be the ones from Ivy League institutions.

And if this idea seems far-fetched or not feasible, don’t forget there’s a precedent for something very similar: politics. If you don’t think that policies are being made in a certain way or certain corporations are receiving benefits because of the people they’re donating to and the amount they’re donating, you’re not realistic. The easiest way to see significant changes is to wield financial influence over policymakers.

You can debate the ethics of this all you want, but it’s the reality of the world we live in. Given that there’s already millions of dollars being handed out to the student-athletes by wealthy and influential boosters of athletic programs (“hundred-dollar handshakes” between boosters and athletes happen ALL the time), why not formalize and legalize this process overall?

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