Chances are, you spent part of your Sunday watching extremely well-compensated athletes play some football between the commercials that raise the money to pay the athletes. Welcome to the NFL.
Chances are, you spent part of your New Year’s Day watching uncompensated athletes play some football between the commercials that raise the money to pay the … to pay the … um, not the athletes. Welcome to the NCAA.
Beginning this fall, that whopping divide will close just a bit.
College football players and other student-athletes will be eligible to receive several thousand dollars in expense money above the value of the free tuition, room and board they receive as athletic scholarships. They will get this cash, and nothing about the experience of college sports will be ruined. The players will give it their all, the fans will cheer, the sponsors will sponsor.
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The change, approved at a recent NCAA meeting, is a positive step toward resolving a significant dispute about money and the culture of big-time college sports. Now there is precedent for sharing with the players some of the billions of dollars that college athletics generates.
The unresolved question is how much further to go in compensating students who play revenue-producing sports. Like a fast running back, we see daylight ahead.
The five biggest college sports conferences will allow their member schools to boost the value of all athletic scholarships. Those scholarships could include what’s known as the full cost of attendance, which includes travel expenses, academic-related supplies and some personal expenses.
The amount differs depending on the school, but federal guidelines define the term “cost of attendance,” which every school must calculate and publish. Officials expect it to be $2,000 to $4,000 per student per year, though it could be more, for example, for an athlete who travels to and from home in Hawaii.
The conferences that approved the deal all have, no surprise, major sports programs. They’re the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference. Other Division 1 schools, will have the green light to make the same offers to recruits if they wish. Many will do so, if they can afford it.
The Power 5 won the right last year from the NCAA to make more decisions for themselves. If they hadn’t gotten that autonomy, they might have bolted. Their power derives from money, of course, which has undeniably changed the nature of college sports. One striking example: ESPN is paying $7.3 billion over 12 years to broadcast seven football games a year — the championship game, two playoff games and four other bowl games.
With those kinds of dollars at stake — there’s billions more for basketball — the old-fashioned notion of amateur college athletics ruptured, and the NCAA phrase “student-athlete” began to sound less noble and more defensive. On came the challenges. A National Labor Relations Board arbitrator said Northwestern University football team members could form a union, a ruling that’s now before the full board. In a case brought by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon, a judge lifted the ban on college athletes profiting from their names and images. That ruling is under appeal.
This system can be fixed without destroying the tradition of rooting for Spartans or Trojans or Illini.
A top NCAA official, Oliver Luck, said last month that he believes scholarship athletes have a “fundamental right” to their name and image, though he didn’t signal how to value that right. Schools are thinking differently too. The University of Alabama at Birmingham dropped football last year, a financial decision. Many students, faculty and alums were upset, but it was a logical decision for a smaller university with limited resources. Football is an expensive production.
So the NCAA seems to be on its way to creating a system that shares some revenue with the players who generate it, to be disbursed as a stipend and through a fund accessed after they leave school. This won’t, shouldn’t, lead to high school players enrolling at the college that offers the highest contract for services. The stipends will be set in advance.
Final thought: Why not give a bonus to players who actually graduate?