The struggle over whether to pay college athletes is relatively simple. Or at least, it is compared to the struggle over what to pay college athletes. Proposals to allow a greater degree of compensation to college athletes are a dime a dozen and it is easy to find objections to a specific proposal. This is actually a positive. It means the NCAA is getting enough right that it is hard to change and please a substantial majority of people.
The recently released study by the National College Players Association and Drexel University’s Department of Sports Management is one of the most detailed and well-executed pay-for-play proposals in recent memory. It offers a detailed plan that addresses multiple issues. It offers a plan to see these reforms turned into actual change. And it offers no shortage of data in support of the proposal.
However, the NCPA paints a very different vision for Division I athletics that most college athletes, fans, and administrators are used to. In making a series of assumptions, the NCPA study embraces a cynicism that is hard to go along with even given the quality of the proposal and the data to support it. If the NCPA wants its proposal to be taken seriously by stakeholders in the NCAA and the rest of college athletics, it must address these issues.
Major League Pay in the Minor Leagues
One of the tried and true criticisms of the NCAA is that the association is operating minor leagues for the NFL and NBA, either through implict acceptance or outright conspiracy. Which is why I find it confusing that alternate revenue models default to collectively bargained revenue sharing agreements that are only common in the major leagues. I’ve covered this issue before, but if any pay-for-play system developed in college athletics, it seems more likely it would resemble minor league or developmental pay, rather than major league pay.
Calling a collectively bargained revenue split “the free market” is also something of a misnomer, especially when citing a number that was simply offered one side in a negotiation. A collective bargaining agreement restricts the free market in order to make it a more competitive market. In a free market, the Miami Heat might have paid the Big Three more and had a different and better compensated supporting cast.
Finally, the study does not address a very important exception to the NBA and NFL revenue splits. High school seniors–and in the NFL college freshmen and sophomores–are offered 0% of the revenue. No matter what the NCAA is offering, it is better than nothing. Absent evidence that the NCAA wanted this situation and helped bring it about, that discrepancy must be addressed before anointing the results of a CBA process as fairer than the NCAA legislative process where student-athletes do have a voice, whether you belief it is sufficient or not.
The True Value of Being a Student-Athlete
The NCPA study takes pains to focus the conversation on the immediate status of student-athletes. This prevents the pay-for-play debate from moving into the realm of the value of an education or the dollar figure that should be attached to instruction from coaches. It makes for a much simpler and more practical debate.
The study takes the value of room and board, essentially the living expenses provided to student-athletes, and measures it against the national poverty line. The study generally finds a full scholarship wanting. However, the study did not take into account the additional financial aid or benefits that are available to student-athletes, not counting the portion of the NCAA’s revenue distribution earmarked for student-athletes (that is a seperate issue).
In addition to room and board, student-athletes receive a number of other benefits. While institutions cannot provide clothing at their discretion, what is available to student-athletes for “practice or competition” is interpreted rather broadly. When a student-athlete is on the road or starting the night before a home game, meals can be provided. Not to mention that a full-grant in aid covers the academic year (typically 8–9 months) while the poverty line is based on the entire year and the other months (semester and summer break) can be covered by another source (vacation period expenses or summer aid).
On top of that, there is additional aid. Federal grants, state grants, scholarships, and need-based aid. All of this helps fill the gap between a full grant-in-aid and the cost of attendance. Admittedly, the best organization to undertake a comprehensive study of what full scholarship student-athletes are paying out of pocket taking into account this additional “income” is the NCAA. And while the NCAA should make that study a priority (and likely will given that the membership is currently debating this issue), that does not mean these sources of financial aid and basic necessities for student-athletes can be ignored.
The Cure Cannot Be As Bad As The Disease
One source of assistance for student-athletes in meeting the gap between the full grant-in-aid and cost of attendance is the Student Assistance Fund. The study is dismissive of the SAF, claiming it is an element of control over student-athletes.
It is entirely reasonable to say the SAF is not enough, and could not be enough no matter how well-funded. It is also reasonable to disagree with the SAF regulations, which allow the money to spent on student-athletes in ways other than providing direct benefits to individual athletes. It is even reasonable to suggest that institutions should direct more of the SAF money to revenue-sport athletes, although I vehemently disagree with that position.
It is not reasonable to not give the NCAA and its members credit for the SAF. If the scholarship gap is a practical problem, millions of dollars that can go to student-athletes to fill that gap cannot be discredited or worse vilified. It puts the NCAA in an impossible Catch–22. Provide the money and the NCAA is a “welfare state” using the money to control student-athletes. Don’t provide the money and the NCAA is hoarding revenue that student-athletes helped earn. Outside income is either a philosophical issue separate from the scholarship gap or the scholarship gap is not a practical student-athlete welfare issue. It cannot be both.
Defunding Non-Revenue Sports
I have to start by giving credit where credit is due. Most arguments for NCAA reform fail right off the bat because they have not considered basic questions about what college athletics should look like. How many schools should be in the top level of college athletics? How many sports should they sponsor? How many athletes should be competing on the same level for the same rewards?
The NCPA has thought about these questions. While it is not explicit, the focus on the scholarship gap suggests the NCPA does not mind a smaller Division I. While I may be reading too much into this and other NCPA studies, it seems reasonable to say the organization believes institutions in Division I should be able to fully finance their student-athlete’s educations. What is explicit is how many sports institutions should be sponsoring at the highest level, in this case men’s basketball, football, and just enough women’s sports to meet the school’s legal obligation under Title IX.
Saying institutions should only invest in non-revenue sports what is legally required or the bare minimum necessary to field a team is asking the NCAA and its members to embrace a cynical view of intercollegiate athletics. That college sports should be run as a profit-maximizing enterprise and under-performing business units shuttered or defunded.
That claim requires more than simply a statement that concludes non-revenue sports are lavish excesses. To justify taking money away from programs where coaches rarely make millions and where new money is often spent improving the student-athlete experience, you need an explanation of why only football and men’s basketball players deserve a well-funded, elite athletic experience.
Small Reforms, Massive Tweaks
The NCPA’s report is one of the better and more detailed studies of economic issues facing student-athletes. It has shortcomings but those do not detract from the larger point. Colleges could provide more to their student-athletes within the principles the NCAA has established. Of the reforms offered, the NCAA has committed to exploring all but two: deregulation of athletically related income and Congressional action (which if the current reform movement bears fruit would not be necessary).
As soon as non-revenue sports are presented as a source of funding for these reforms, this ceases to be about fixing one system and becomes a call for a new system. One where expanding opportunities for women, training Olympic athletes, and providing educational opportunities for more athletes is seen as a negative. It is no longer about holding the NCAA accountable for the association’s own mission. It is about fundamentally changing college athletics. When the two are confused, no honest or productive conversation about reform can occur.
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.