Florida Gators quarterback Luke Del Rio made news last week when he tweeted that he would like to see college athletes get paid for their efforts.
141 million eh? Seems like enough to spread the wealth a little more https://t.co/jqCD307QhL
— Luke Del Rio (@Ldelrio12) July 6, 2017
Del Rio isn’t the first player to point out that universities are producing enormous revenue from student-athletes. But because of who he is — or more accurately, who his father is — he does have a unique perspective.
Del Rio doesn’t need a scholarship. Were he not talented enough to warrant one, his parents could afford to send him to college. Likely there are many others who feel as Del Rio does, but are unable or unwilling to speak up because there is value in a scholarship. The value lies not only in the education gained, but also in the opportunity to make life-changing money at the NFL level.
Is a scholarship fair compensation for playing college football?
Measuring that value is usually where the argument ends. One side extols the virtues of a scholarship (and coaching, facilities, tutors, etc.) as payment for the money that is generated for the school. There is value in those things. And in many — if not most — situations, that value exceeds the value that the athlete is providing to the university.
But the other side looks at numbers like $141 million in revenue and wonders whether players are deserving of further compensation. This is particularly true given the incentive to provide watered-down classes to athletes to keep them eligible instead of actually educating them. One example is the University of North Carolina, where the school is alleged to have provided to athletes classes that didn’t meet or even exist in a form where someone could learn something. What value is there in a scholarship when the education provided is just a box to check to get on the field?
And the value of a scholarship in return for playing football can be questioned even further given the toll the game takes on its participants. I have a friend who played collegiately and can barely lift his arms over his shoulders because of injuries. He’s 25.
Also, the toll is not always visible or immediately apparent. The recent revelations about concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) serve to decrease the value of the payment being received. There should be real concern that players are earning degrees they will struggle to use because they are simultaneously enhancing and damaging their brains during their college experience.
Should universities pay college athletes?
Even with everything said above, I also don’t want athletes being paid by the university for three reasons.
First, the university’s mission is to educate its students. Paying players moves the discussion away from being student-athletes and more toward athletes only. This eliminates one of the reasons scholarships are so valuable in the first place: They send many people to college who otherwise couldn’t afford to go.
Inevitably, this would lead to eventually dropping the pretense of educating athletes and acknowledging that the university system (for football and basketball) is just the minor leagues for the NFL and NBA. If you want minor-league football, that’s fine. But call it that, and then take everything that goes with that, including having to treat your players as employees.
The second reason I don’t want universities to pay athletes is that it would break the system. Title IX is a positive development overall. But the requirement of equal treatment for men’s and women’s sports would dictate that athletes participating in sports that don’t generate significant revenue be compensated as well.
This would create a situation where those athletes who are bringing in the revenue would not be properly compensated because they are subsidizing those who are overcompensated. I don’t see how that is materially different than what occurs today. The downside is that it significantly disincentivizes universities from investing in its athletic programs. If they see no net revenue (nonprofit verbiage for profit), why invest in those athletes?
The third reason I don’t want universities paying athletes is it would lead to an adversarial relationship between athletes and the universities. Think about how things work in professional sports. NFL players have zero trust in Roger Goodell because he has been very aggressive in asserting his rights under the collective bargaining agreement.
Compensating players directly from the school would have to involve collective bargaining, which means that the education athletes are receiving would be a potential bargaining chip. NFL players can’t see 20 years down the line to bargain for long-term benefits. I have no faith that college athletes would be able to see 20 years out, either. Unfortunately, they likely would sacrifice long-term benefits (that cost the university more and protect them more comprehensively) for short-term gains.
So, how should players be compensated?
I don’t think anyone wants the players to be taken advantage of. And the university is clearly providing value and exposure to the athletes that they would not get from a run-of-the-mill minor-league program. Paying them directly is not the answer.
Instead, why not let a third party pay them?
While in graduate school, I filed a patent. When it was filed, it was clear that the university was going to do a lot of groundwork to ensure the patent got filed, completed and maintained. For that, it owned some of the royalties associated with the patent, but the inventors owned some of those royalties as well.
Couldn’t the same thing be done for college athletes?
In 2008, I visited the Swamp for the second game of the season against Miami. Tim Tebow had won the Heisman Trophy in 2007 and his image was all over campus. The stadium was decked out in images of Tebow, and the entire community was wearing number 15 jerseys with no name on the back. Tebow received no compensation for any of those items.
But what if he had been able to do a commercial for Allstate during the offseason? Imagine that he signed a deal to do three commercials for $3 million. Under an agreement where the athlete owns 50 percent of the royalties associated with marketing his/her likeness, Tebow would receive $1.5 million and so would the university. Not only is it more fair to someone like Tebow, but it is also a new revenue stream for Florida. Additionally, Tebow would be an independent contractor, allowing the university to avoid having to call him an employee.
There are two issues I can see with this arrangement. First, the university would need to not only get compensated, but also have some right of refusal for the endorsements since it impacts its brand. For example, Florida likely wouldn’t want a third-string linebacker shilling for Café Risque.
The second issue is that if a player receives significant compensation for an ad campaign, he wouldn’t have much incentive to try very hard in the classroom. This could be remedied by requiring a minimum grade-point average for an athlete to be eligible for an endorsement. I would like to see this minimum higher than just eligibility for playing the sport, perhaps 3.0 to ensure that the university is accomplishing its mission while subsequently allowing the athlete to be compensated.
Is this system perfect? No. But neither is a system that clearly has a black market to compensate these players right now. Ole Miss tackle Laremy Tunsil admitted as much right after the NFL draft. And this isn’t a new phenomenon. Charles Barkley admitted he received money from agents while he was at Auburn.
Right now, players such as Del Rio have a choice: risk eligibility by breaking NCAA rules or embrace a system where his compensation doesn’t match his marketability. The difference is that Del Rio has family support not all athletes have.
For athletes who do come from humble backgrounds, forcing them into that choice is not only unfair, it’s unrealistic.