Intercollegiate athletics just got a two-minute warning
The United States is the only country in the world in which a billion-dollar entertainment industry is owned, organized, and operated by colleges and universities. Justified by the proposition that providing “student-athletes” access to higher education (and scholarships covering the full cost of attendance) is adequate compensation for their participation in varsity sports, the system is now under sustained attack and may collapse. And the solutions now under consideration won’t fix it.
In September 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California signed a bill that allows college athletes to hire agents and receive compensation for the use of their names, images, or likenesses. The law is scheduled to go into effect in 2023. Similar legislation is pending in Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Washington. At the federal level, Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) has introduced a bill that strips the NCAA of its tax-exempt status if it prohibits compensation for college athletes. Rep Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), a former Ohio State football star, believes “we need to do something quickly, within the next year.” Andrew Yang, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, has proposed the creation of a new category, “Performer Athlete,” who would be entitled to market-based payments. Last week, the NCAA announced its intention to permit compensation, but did not supply a timeline to submit a detailed plan.
These proposals have been a long time coming. They reflect the views of a substantial majority of Americans — including 80 percent of respondents under 30 — who believe that varsity athletes are being exploited and deserve some of the massive profits generated by college sports. Since 2001, reformers point out, the NCAA has permitted Olympic athletes still in college to receive substantial sums of money from the United States Olympic Committee for winning gold, silver, and bronze medals. And the alternative (paying players directly) risks turning student-athletes into employees, subverting their status as students and burying institutions of higher education in an avalanche of lawsuits.
As they address a fundamental problem (no compensation for student athletes), the proposed reforms create others (inconsistent regulations across jurisdictions; inequities within teams, across sports, and between men’s and women’s programs; and recruiting abuses driven by competition for star players).
We believe that a national commission composed of NCAA officials, college and university presidents, athletic directors, faculty, former players, media and corporate executives, licensing organizations, and elected officials is more likely to design a comprehensive, coherent, and equitable solution to the crisis of intercollegiate athletics.
Fewer than 2 percent of the 500,000 NCAA athletes become professionals, the majority of them football or basketball players. With that in mind, the commission should address these questions:
- Will promises of compensation complicate the already controversial policies attached to the recruitment of players, as college and university officials are forced to join a different kind of bidding war? What procedures might safeguard the admission process?
- Will branding conflicts between colleges and players — the California bill, for example, prohibits players from making deals that jeopardize a school’s existing sponsorships (Brand Y vs. Brand X sneakers) — lead to litigation? If so, how might such disputes be resolved?
- Under the proposed legislation, will deals offered to top players by local boosters as well as corporate sponsors create resentments and inequities between the favored few and all the rest?
- Will — and should — reforms mark the end of the concepts of “amateurism” and student-athlete?
- Once admitted into the groves of academe, will agents expand the areas in which they can represent their clients’ financial interests? What form might that expansion take?
- Will the proposed reforms exacerbate the role of money in inter-collegiate sports and its impact on the priorities of colleges and universities? Or will it promote greater transparency?
- What will be the impact on coaches’ seven-figure salaries; pressure to build stadiums and facilities costing hundreds of millions of dollars; and the influence of alumni who make support for athletics their litmus test for donations?
- Does state legislation in this area violate the commerce clause of the United States Constitution?
- What should be the appropriate role of the much-maligned NCAA in promulgating and enforcing rules and regulations for intercollegiate sports?
Intercollegiate sports just got a two-minute warning, and the clock is counting down. It’s time for a commission to get to work.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Isaac Kramnick) of Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.
David Wippman is the President of Hamilton College.