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Compensation could end exploitation of college athletes

December 27, 2018

Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Kyler Murray, the most recent Heisman Trophy winner, this month added his name to a long list of people — athletes, sports personalities and scholars — who believe college athletes should be paid.

The time has long come to end the exploitation of college athletes, who are forbidden under NCAA rules from earning compensation above their scholarship amounts for playing, as well as receiving any money based on endorsement deals.

College football and men’s college basketball has evolved into an $11 billion-a-year industry. Paying college athletes in these sports would merely result in reallocating money generated by major college sports, not the grimly prophesied collapse of college athletics.

The NCAA successfully defended its prohibition on compensation using the notion of amateurism in the O’Bannon v. NCAA case regarding compensation for college athletes for the use of their names, images and likenesses in video games. The NCAA posits the same argument in the currently stayed Jenkins v. NCAA case, which seeks a free market system to compensate college athletes.

The NCAA’s amateurism argument boils down to this: If college athletes are paid, then the product of the games will be different and there will be less consumer demand — i.e., fewer people will watch college sports.

The judges who accepted the amateurism argument in the O’Bannon case must not be familiar with football fans who paint themselves with their team colors, dedicate every Saturday in the fall to watching the games, spend thousands of dollars traveling to away games, or donate inordinate amounts of money to their alma maters or the regional schools they support.

The demand for college football has grown so much that ESPN broadcasts spring football practices for several teams. Some of those games can be seen on ESPNU, a channel dedicated to college sports. This demand indicates that rather than watching fewer games if college athletes received compensation for playing sports, consumers would likely pay to help universities attract and compensate elite college athletes.

College athletes are also prevented from signing endorsement deals. The NCAA’s argument that amateurism equals more consumer demand makes even less sense with regard to endorsement deals, particularly in light of the fandom surrounding standouts in the Summer Olympics. If a gold medalist swimmer takes endorsement deals from Nike or McDonald’s and then swims in college, common sense suggests that there would be more rather than fewer people watching those swim meets.

Consumer demand might increase if college athletes became household names through endorsements, as many college football and men’s basketball players already approach that level through TV coverage.

Opponents of compensating college athletes above their scholarship amounts typically make two arguments: It will be impossible to figure out how to pay college athletes, or athletic scholarships already have value.

Regarding the first argument, many universities already employ thousands of people. They can figure out a way to compensate 100 college athletes — 85 scholarship football players and 15 basketball players.

As for the second argument, universities began giving full scholarships in the 1950s, well before major college sports became a multibillion-dollar business. Colleges, booster clubs and alumni — which pay college coaches millions of dollars — can afford to pay college athletes or reallocate revenues generated by the players, which includes more than $500 million from the college football playoff system alone. In America, everyone should earn what the free market allows. College athletes should not be treated any differently.

Given the extremely slim percent of college athletes drafted in the NBA and the NFL, and the incredible amount of money these players generate for others, the NCAA should remove its restriction on compensating college athletes to allow them to earn money now, because they likely will not be paid for playing professionally.

David Grenardo, a four-year football letterman at Rice University and Duke Law School alumnus, is a St. Mary’s University School of Law professor.

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