Do We Really Want To Pay College Athletes: Be Careful What You Wish For

Posted on Oct 31, 2019 in Business Litigation

Richard Roth, Esq.

On Tuesday, the NCAA took a major step toward allowing college athletes to get paid for their fame, voting to permit them to “benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness.”

Now the question are flying: How does the NCAA implement a comprehensive program?  Is it really in the best interest of colleges and universities?  Do we really want to eliminate amateurism? The NCAA Board of Governors directed each of the NCAA’s three divisions to answer these questions by creating the necessary new rules immediately and have them in place no later than January 2021.

While the NCAA has seen revenues soar in recent years, and many are saluting the decision, removing the NCAA’s restrictions on endorsements poses several thorny issues.  First, there is concern it will create a winner-take-all dynamic among universities.  That is, only the best players at the best schools will reap all the benefits, causing less popular colleges, sports and athletes to suffer.  Nike, for example, would only pay top football and basketball players at the largest universities.  The second major concern is that it will eliminate the line between amateur and professional sports.  College athletes will be able to endorsing apparel, sports drinks, and even autographed jerseys, profiting from the fame that their work. And players could take on that “pro mindset” where, rather than winning to win, they are motivated by the dollar.  The hunger and passion we current see in a college basketball game could, in essence, disappear. 

Third, for students, it could create academic fraud, as students will be more incentivized to stay in school which, de facto, encroaches on the entire principal and mission of higher education.   Fourth, some scholars believe it could become a burden on taxpayers and other student families.  While the college athlete salaries should come from revenues which are generated by sporting activities, in reality, much of that money is already used by the conferences and schools to host games or conduct events already. To pay athletes a salary, most public institutions would need monetary support which could be directed at taxpayers. Private institutions could also likely increase tuition rates to meet the new financial obligations. Those burdens could stop some students from enrolling for academic purposes, which would create lower-skill workers over time throughout the country.

Fifth, it could burden smaller schools that compete at higher levels as students would be more drawn to larger institutions with a superior program. Sixth, it could create opportunities to unionize.  Since student athletes who are receiving a salary would be classified as employees, that would give them the ability to unionize in many states. If that occurs, it will create an inherent conflict between schools and athletes in a manner that is similar to the conflicts seen between owners and professional athletes as the students would now be employees, opening up an entirely different can of worms.  We could see a college basketball player putting a claim into the EEOC – and even suing his/her coach – based on claims of, among other things, discrimination, since they would be employees with that right.  Sounds crazy, but that is a real risk.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, while the thought is that it will eliminate fraud, as many successful college athletes already get stipends and other payments to enable them to stay at the school, it could open up entirely new concerns.  That is, it could open up pandora’s box on fraud since the payments would be flowing every way in this multi-billion-dollar collegiate athletics industry. 

The NCAA must be careful what it wishes for … right now the system is not broken.  Changing it could do just that.

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