One of the troubles with the debate over whether college athletes should be paid is that both sides have a moving target. Proponents of NCAA amateurism have many arguments to throw at the idea of paid college athletes, from the dynamic between coach and athlete to the impact on education to the unique appeal college athletics has as elite amateur competition (the old “I hate the pros, bunch of overpaid divas!” complaint). Proponents of professional college athletics have any number of different ideas, from monthly stipends to allowing outside compensation to bona fide professional contracts.
As a result, you’ve rarely seen a debate between the status quo and one definitive alternative. That makes it too easy for proponents of pay-for-play to change the alternative to fit the argument and for proponents of amateurism to change the argument to attack the alternative. The result is that the debate never serves its core function: to force a continual reassessment of the fundamental fairness of the grant-in-aid.
Let’s assume major college football has broken away from the NCAA to form their own league. Football is the example here for a number of reasons. No developmental league exists here or abroad. Removing football from the NCAA has little immediate impact on how college sports are administered, and if anything would improve the situation. The NCAA membership, as a whole, has less at stake in FBS football because of the lack of an NCAA championship.
Let’s also assume that this league keeps the rest of the NCAA rulebook largely intact. Meaning no booster payments, no agreements with agents, all academic eligibility requirements, practice limits, etc.
Payment would not be small monthly stipends. The idea that pocket money solves all the problems is disproven by last summer’s agent cases. $1,000 watches, trips to South Beach, and expensive personal training on the other side of the country are all things elite student-athletes want. They’re also all things that cannot be funded on a couple hundred dollars a month.
It would also not be major league contracts. By that I mean player compensation would likely not vary widely, and would not be tied to a percentage of revenue. This is for a couple reasons. First, a college football league is going to fight hard to keep the parity that exists due to the NCAA’s standard grant-in-aid amount. Second, this would be very a much a minor league and minor leagues tend to have much more standardized player contracts than major leagues.
The minor league baseball contract is a standard contract that has one major part that changes: the size of the signing bonus. For the first contract season, the salary is capped at $1,100 in the most recent CBA. The slotting system and negotiation is based around the signing bonus.
In Major League Soccer’s Generation adidas program, early entry candidates (high school or college athletes who have not exhausted their eligibility) sign a contract that includes money held in escrow for educational expenses that they have 10 years to use.
So what are the elements of a contract that this league might use?
- A base salary that covers basic room and board expenses. Let’s use $1,250 per month, which works out to a nice round $15,000 per year and represents a little above the highest room and board allowances.
- Payment of all tuition, fees, and book costs associated with attending the university during the athlete’s collegiate career, since these would still be student-athletes. Call it an average of $20,000 per year. This money would be guaranteed upon the signing of the contract though at least six years.
- A signing bonus up to $100,000 or $25,000 annually for a four-year career
That creates a system where the lowest paid players are getting essentially the same deal they are now: a full grant-in-aid that covers tuition, fees, room, board, and books. The highest paid players are getting total compensation of roughly $60,000 per year, but a third of their compensation is earmarked for education. $40,000 a year represents a decent living wage, and much of that money comes up front, which can provide assistance to needy athletes. Stay smart about how you spend your money, and it could provide for a few of the finer things as well.
So to proponents of paying college athletes, focus on this proposal. It’s a sensible proposal for paying college athletes that is based on professional developmental contracts. If you run the league right, it may even be a wash in costs for many football programs (although that’s beyond the score of this post).
And to the proponents of NCAA amateurism, this is the proposal that should be argued against. Stipends and major league contracts are too easy to argue against. It represents both the biggest challenge to NCAA amateurism, as well as the best yardstick for judging the fairness of the grant-in-aid and working toward improving financial assistance for student-athletes while still adhering to NCAA principles.
The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office.