The issue of whether or not to pay college athletes is one that is much less glamorous than some other aspects of college sports, but also one that tends to get as much media coverage as some of the sports themselves. It has been a hotly contested topic for many years, and it seems like the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and those who support its unpaid athlete policy are losing more ground every year.
One place the NCAA’s system faces challenges is within the court system, the most notable case being that of former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon. O’Bannon is suing for former athletes’ entitlement to compensation for further use of their image after they have left school. Currently the NCAA licenses the likenesses of college players for commercial purposes, the most notable of which is video games. To an average person it would seem absurd if a company took their image and name, used it to make millions of dollars and then paid them nothing for it. However, this is common practice under current NCAA regulations.
This lawsuit is an important move forward in the battle for college athlete pay, but one that needs to be taken a step further. It is not enough that players should be compensated for their likeness only after they graduate or leave school. The NCAA is still making money off of them while they are a student, so why is it unreasonable for them to see some of it?
One of the most popular arguments against paying college athletes is that schools already spend too much and are losing money on their sports programs so paying athletes would only further intensify this problem.
As Businessweek points out this argument does not hold much water, “In one of the filings in the O’Bannon case, the plaintiffs detail how schools use accounting tricks to obscure the profitability of their football and basketball programs…”
Another attempt to break the NCAA’s policies includes players at some schools trying to unionize, claiming that while they are students they are also “employee-athletes”. One such challenge comes from Northwestern football players who will have a hearing with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Feb. 18 to plead their case. As reported by ESPN, the hearing is not a court case. A representative of the NLRB will take testimony and documents from each party and give them to their regional director who will make his decision from there. From there the losing party can submit an appeal, and the process can eventually move into federal court.
While this is an important part of the process, the Northwestern players’ struggle will not be over even if they are allowed to unionize. The statement released by the players states that this is only a more localized effort with a national objective: “Establishing a union at Northwestern is not the endgame. Rather, it is a first step toward building a nationwide players’ association that will eventually have the leverage to eliminate unjust NCAA policies that affect players at each college.”
If it is decided that athletes should be paid, the obvious next question is, how much? According to Businessweek, the best system might be one that is already used by professional sports organizations — the free market. “Colleges could simply bid for the services of high school recruits. Contracts could be negotiated individually, like the contracts for coaches and athletic administrators.”
This is only one of numerous ideas being considered but it may just be the best one. Setting up regulations for how much athletes should be paid would be an enormous task, and would only extend the time athletes go uncompensated. Do all athletes get paid the same amount? Should pay be determined by performance, or by how successful the school is during the season? The best option is to simply let players negotiate their contracts on an individual basis, because no two athletes are the the same so no two athletes should be paid the same.
While we seem to finally be moving towards paying college athletes for their work, the ideal salary system is still a long way off. There are still many challenges to overcome, legal and otherwise, but if college sports are to continue being the financial giants that they have become, the only just option is to give the “employee-athletes” the compensation they deserve.
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