College athletes have always been barred from receiving financial compensation for the cash cow they create — perhaps until now.
The “Fair Pay to Play Act,” recently signed by California governor Gavin Newsome, has the potential to usher in a new era for college athletics. Beginning in 2023, it intends to allow athletes from some of America’s highest-profile sports programs to seek and receive payment from sponsors without fear of losing their scholarships or eligibility.
Predictably, the NCAA — college sports’ main governing body — forecasts gloom and doom to follow California’s law. The organization and its apologists have resorted to increasingly desperate arguments to support the status quo.
First, they claim that allowing collegiate athletes to be paid will lead to the professionalization of amateur sports. That ship has already sailed.
Sure, it feels more like professional athletics than amateur competition. But big money in college sports is nothing new, nor are other pro sports-like hallmarks such as corporate sponsorships, television deals, multi-million-dollar stadiums, and enormous coaching salaries. In nearly every other way, college football and basketball resemble the NFL and NBA more than they do high school sports.
Second, some argue that the new policy will lead to a lack of athletic parity. What, the old guard contends, would stop a large school with wealthy alumni from attracting all of the star athletes, leaving less talented players for smaller schools with shallower pockets?
In reality, it’s impossible to guarantee an equal distribution of talent — nothing close to that exists today — and the effects of allowing players to make money are far from clear. In 1994, the NFL instituted its first salary cap in an effort to end the era of football “dynasties” like the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys. By capping what teams could spend, none could consistently afford all the great players.
Did dynasties end? Not exactly. In the last 25 years, the New England Patriots have had only two losing seasons. The Cleveland Browns have had only had three winning seasons.
Even if the NCAA’s criticisms are true, shouldn’t student-athletes possess the fundamental right to work? Their elite skills generated over $1 billion for the NCAA in 2017 alone. Why should the NCAA and its member universities make millions while students receive a pittance by comparison?
If the NCAA wants to ban schools from paying their players directly, fine. Athletes are (ostensibly) students partaking in an exclusive club run by the university, and members of any non-athletic clubs would never expect to be paid.
That said, only student-athletes are subjected to bans on outside employment. No drama department stipulates that students cast in on-campus performances cannot seek acting work elsewhere. Quite the opposite: Students are often encouraged to do so.
The point of being an amateur — whether a thespian or an athlete — is to gain experience and a brighter future. If that “big break” comes before graduation, all the better.
Consider the students at a regular season NCAA basketball game. Some cheer their team from the stands while others are paid to work the ticket booth, front gates, and concessions while gaining work experience. Even members of the band are sometimes compensated, especially if the game is during a semester break.
Students who volunteer their time, such as media students working with lighting and sound or kinesiology students assisting the training staff, are allowed to take paid work in whatever industry will hire them.
Student-athletes are, in fact, the only students in the building who are not allowed to professionalize their talents by accepting money from private employers. It is unthinkable that a school would ban members of the marching band from recording and selling an album, or forbid student-trainers from working in a doctor’s office.
It’s time to stop pretending that paying student-athletes harms students or represents some sort of privilege given only to athletes. What’s so wrong with leveling the playing field?