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Commentary & Opinion

Jane McManus: Compensating College Athletes

There are two things on the horizon that will change the landscape of American sports forever. The first is sports gambling. As states legalize and regulate it, the money flooding the system will change the way American games are broadcast and consumed. 

The second, and the one I want to focus on today, is the way college athletes are compensated. Right now, that’s through tuition. So let’s see how that compensation has changed in relation to coaching salaries. 

Early on, the amateur model functioned pretty well. In 1970, Ole Miss coach Johnny Vaught made $27,000 to coach the football team according to a Mississippi Today story. 

In the early 1970s, tuition at in-state colleges averaged about $2,000 or 7.4% of Vaught’s pay. 

So let’s see what’s happened in the years since. 

Today, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney makes  $9.3 million according to USA Today, and with the average in-state tuition at those public schools at $10K in 2018, average tuition .1% of Swinney pay. 

So top college coaching salaries have skyrocketed in proportion to tuition costs.  

Athlete compensation, however, has remained stable. The dollars go up, but that money buys an athlete in 2019 the exact same thing as it did in the 1970s. Tuition, room and board. 

So why the disparity? 

BECAUSE, money has flooded the NCAA system in the form of broadcast rights. In 1991, CBS signed a $1Billion contract with the NCAA to broadcast the men’s basketball tournament. It was a lot at the time, and subsequent contracts have only gotten fatter, That money goes to the organization and the schools, and since they are technically non-profits, that money goes to, among other things, coaches and Rolls Royce locker rooms used to attract recruits. 

Common sense went out the door a long time ago when it comes to college sports. Even the term student-athlete is a legal fiction designed to get schools out of paying worker’s compensation to players injured on the field. 

But there is a growing understanding that a system that unfairly profits off the labor of athletes without paying them cannot stand. 

In October, California passed legislation that will allow college athletes to profit off their name and likeness, say in the form of endorsements or autograph signings. Other states are considering following California’s lead, because it is an inherent recruiting advantage to be in a state that will allow athletes a stream of revenue – one that any other student at the university has access to mind you. 

On December 17, NCAA president Mark Emmert spoke at The Aspen Institute, and it’s clear his organization is not actually looking for ways to smooth the transition into a new, fairer model, but is rather hoping to hold back athletes, legislators and pro-labor organizers who want to do something about the blatant inequity. 

Emmert stressed that he is just a messenger for member schools, but his answers to pointed and necessary questions were evasive and defensive. When he said the California law would affect parity, he was asked about existing inequity that allows the same schools to rise to the top of the college football rankings year over year and the arms race with facilities. 

Emmert’s response was that an underdog Wofford recently beat North Carolina in basketball. He inadvertently undermined his own argument with the exception proving the rule. 

Emmert and the NCAA are firm in maintaining that athletes aren’t employees, but when required to have actual moral courage, in cases of assault or accused players transferring schools before they can be disciplined, as a recent USA Today story uncovered, the NCAA loses its voice. 

Donna Lopiano, the former CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation and current CEO of the Drake Group, is working with Florida Congresswoman Donna Shalala to propose a congressional working group to reform college athletics. 

“There has to be a serious look at the NCAA’s failure to govern,” Lopiano said. 

Taylor Branch brilliantly exposed the hypocrisy of the system back in 2011 in the Atlantic. Unfortunately, there are two many stakeholders with too much to lose if the current system changes, and at $2.4 million a year, Emmert took his case to Senators Mitt Romney and Chris Murphy while in Washington D.C. 

As much as the NCAA digs in its heels, change is coming. North Carolina Congressman Mark Walker is proposing a national law allowing athletes to be paid for name and likeness, in addition to Shalala’s proposed working group. 

And the public gets it. A recent Seton Hall poll found 60% of respondents said athletes should be able to profit off their name and likeness, and legislators from states that will compete against the USCs and UCLAs are crafting their own bills to allow the practice. 

The NCAA isn’t leading on the issue, it is obstructing. And that’s a shame for the athletes who will spend four productive years earning money that ultimately goes to a school’s tricked out locker rooms and Dabo Swinney’s 15,000 square foot house.

Jane McManus is director of the Center for Sports Communication at Marist College.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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