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College athletes may be considered “amateurs,” but there is nothing amateur about the revenue that they help the National Collegiate Athletic Association generate. The road to fairer compensation for these student athletes is a complicated one, but there is little doubt which way it is heading.
In a unanimous ruling on Monday, the Supreme Court sided with former college athletes and a lower court by deciding that the NCAA can’t enforce its rules that restrict education-related benefits like laptops or internships for student athletes. The former athletes argued that existing NCAA rules, which cap scholarship money at the cost of attending school, violate federal antitrust laws. The NCAA argued that its rules were needed to maintain the amateur quality of collegiate athletics. The court sided with the former players.
The direct ramifications of this particular ruling are relatively narrow. The NCAA will no longer be able to ban schools from offering education-related benefits to student athletes, but individual conferences still may be able to. This ruling does not allow student athletes to be paid to play, or for them to make money from endorsement deals or profit from their likeness. It does, however, reflect the widespread acknowledgment that the current compensation model is uncompetitive and unfair.
As the court laid out in its decision, authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, there is a lot of money at play in college sports. The NCAA’s March Madness basketball tournament has a $1.1 billion annual TV contract. A TV deal for the football playoffs is worth more than $450 million annually.
Those are two major examples, and they led up to a major understatement in the ruling.
“Those who run this enterprise profit in a different way than the student-athletes whose activities they oversee,” Gorsuch wrote. Different, indeed. “The president of the NCAA earns nearly $4 million per year… Commissioners of the top conferences take home between $2 [million] to $5 million… College athletic directors average more than $1 million annually… And annual salaries for top Division I college football coaches approach $11 million, with some of their assistants making more than $2.5 million.”
In 2020, financial news and opinion website 24/7 Wall St. conducted a review of state, local and federal salary information to assess the highest paid public employees in each U.S. state. Roughly two-thirds of the people on the list they compiled held positions as coaches at public colleges and universities.
With the amount of revenue that athletics bring in, we don’t quibble with the idea of valuing good coaching. But there is no doubt that the system needs to place better value on the student athletes. With a wave of individual states moving to allow these athletes to profit from endorsements and their likenesses, that points in the direction the country is heading. While the NCAA has started to come around to that idea, uniform action from Congress is also needed.
Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey — who played football at Stanford — has been working with others on legislation that would create a College Athletes Bill of Rights.
“I know firsthand that college sports can open doors of opportunity that most young people never knew existed — but the unfortunate reality is that the NCAA is also exploiting college athletes for financial gain, and disproportionately exploiting Black athletes who are over-represented in the revenue generating sports,” Booker said in 2020.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, has also worked on legislation to allow college athletes to earn compensation for the use of their name, image and likeness. Rubio spent one year on a football scholarship at Tarkio College in Missouri.
“As an avid collegiate athletics fan, and a former football player, this is an issue that is important to me,” Rubio said last year when he introduced the Fairness in Collegiate Athletics Act. “As states continue to pass laws determining how college athletes can be compensated for their name, image and likeness, it is clear that a patchwork of 50 state laws would be devastating to college sports.”
The ideas and the bipartisan political will are materializing. Congress should follow through with action.