As any parent knows, give a child a choice between spinach and ice cream and he or she will pick the ice cream. That choice isn’t restricted to kids, of course, nor is it limited to young children, and in the older group it usually doesn’t stem from any lack of information. Just about everybody’s mom makes the point that spinach is the wiser option long run or short, and she has a popular cartoon figure to back her up. Still, in the long run we’re all dead and, meantime, we might as well have as much fun as we can.
The purpose of that little observation is the change that’s about to happen to big-time college sports. After years of defensiveness and internal hand wringing the NCAA is about to relent and allow college athletes to be paid for the commercial use of their names, images or likenesses. Although action on the matter was delayed this week, it should happen this year and maybe by this fall, in time for the new football season.
The move will be widely cheered, especially by the “just pay ‘em” crowd that believes that putting a few more dollars in the pockets of some (not all) college athletes will cure most of what ails college sports. That would register on the ice-cream side of the proposition above, an easy fix that won’t change much of anything. At the same time, it won’t include and possibly could set back more worthwhile changes that would register in the spinach category. These relate to putting more college into the college-sports mix and protect the bodies as well as the futures of the young men and women who make up the particularly American institution.
This is not to say that the change is a bad one. College sports may have begun as healthful outlets for students’ energies but on the big-time level they’ve morphed into a multi-billion-dollar behemoth that has twisted out of shape their sponsoring institutions. The notion that this beast is supported by a work force that has few of the protections of the lowliest civilian employee has, finally, become more than the courts or general public would swallow. Allowing some athletes to cash in on their fame amounts to simple justice by any measure, when all around them have been doing that for decades.
To call college jocks unpaid isn’t true, however. Their scholarships have value, both in immediate and long-range terms. The dollar value of a “free ride” of tuition, books and room and board is substantial, ranging from about $30,000 a year for in-state students at state schools like Ohio State University and the University of Alabama to more than $75,000 a year at private schools such as Duke and Northwestern. Furthermore, since 2015 scholarship athletes have been given cash “cost of attendance” stipends of between $2,000 and $6,000 a year to cover such things as travel from home, local transportation and school supplies their awards don’t provide. Added up, it’s a tidy haul for what amounts to semi-skilled labor.
Long term, the rewards of a degree from a four-year institution are much greater, by various estimates amounting to something approaching $2 million over a 40-year work life compared with people with only high-school diplomas. And that’s in addition to the broader cultural horizons higher education permits.
The rub is that participation in a top-level college football or basketball program makes it difficult to get the education the scholarships promise. Counting games, travel, practices and conditioning, it amounts to a full-time job, made all the tougher because many scholarship athletes are marginal students who gained admission on the basis of jock cred. Once on campus, they’re steered to low-content courses by “academic advisors,” and assigned “tutors” who carry them through academe. The kids often contribute to their own exploitation by going along with the program, but their youth is a defense. At age 18 or 19 (or higher), I would have picked shooting baskets (ice cream) over reading some boring textbook (spinach). Wouldn’t you have?
To the above duties the new rules would add commercial responsibilities but, in fact, relatively few would have them. Athletes’ endorsement income is widely overestimated at the pro level and figures to be spread more thinly at the collegiate; young superstars such as Zion Williamson or Trevor Lawrence might have been able to earn serious money as undergrads, but a backup offensive lineman at, say, Purdue wouldn’t cash in similarly. I’d guess that most endorsement money would come from the likes of a booster who might book a few players for an autograph session at his car dealership. The NCAA’s proposed rules would prohibit extra-income offers as recruiting lures, but that is to laugh.
The rules would ban endorsements of products that would conflict with school contracts (read that shoes and apparel) and prohibit kids from using school logos or emblems in their ads or appearances. They could hire agents but only to handle outside-income opportunities. The changes would cost member schools nothing.
It’s not a given that the schools will get their way on all of that. A half-dozen states, including California and Florida¸ have passed laws opening outside-income doors to college jocks, and such bills are pending in a couple-dozen more. The NCAA used to regard with horror Federal legislation touching on its affairs but now it’s pleading for it, if only to keep from having to cope with lots of different state laws.
Maybe it should watch what it wishes for. A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate by several Democrats including Cory Booker, who played football at Stanford, touches on not only outside income but many other matters. Among other things it would guarantee athletic scholarships to graduation, extend athlete medical insurance past attendance, require independent team trainers and doctors, remove academic advisors and tutors from athletics-department control and set up a commission (not the NCAA) to oversee it all.
Chances are it won’t pass—it makes too much sense—but it’s good to get such ideas into circulation. Maybe some day.