Should student-athletes be paid to play for the university they choose to attend?
Some people think so, but most say, no.
Should they be compensated for the use of their name, image or likeness (NIL) in promoting their team, the conference in which their school is a member, or any commercial entity that wants to have them identified with its products or services?
Now that’s another story.
I read recently that the quarterback at the University of Kentucky—a football player, not one of John Calipari’s one-and-done basketball stars—will make something like $800,000 from NIL endorsements in his final season in Lexington! (And then he might be a first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.)
There are dozens and dozens of other examples, and wealthy alumni in many places have formed “cooperatives” to arrange big paydays for the best recruits.
You may have noticed the hard feelings generated by Alabama’s Nick Saban on “national signing day” a couple months ago when intercollegiate football programs across the nation announced their recruiting classes.
Saban accused Texas A&M and coach Jimbo Fisher—a former Saban assistant, no less—of “buying” the best recruiting class in the country. Fisher, of course, was livid at such an accusation.
Quickly, Saban tried to clarify his remarks, emphasizing that intercollegiate athletics—primarily football—needs to rein-in NIL compensation with sensible rules that prevent the chaotic environment that prevails today.
“What I’m saying is that it’s not good for the game and is only going to get worse unless there’s some federal legislation, Saban explained.”
The larger point is that universities, including Alabama, now can (and do) include the prospect (and in many cases, the certainty) of NIL income as soon as a given athlete decides to attend that given school. And this will continue, and grow, until more structure is in place.
I’ve heard all the arguments in favor of college student-athletes profiting from their participation before they turn pro. And on their face, they make some sense, at least in a vacuum.
Yes, many universities reap big money from the attraction that elite players represent—mostly from television rights but also from ticket sales and other ancillary sources. So, why shouldn’t they share in the riches?
Yes, that revenue would be considerably less without those stars.
And yes, the success of those athletes and their teams helps universities attract new students.
And yes, there’s a measurable equation between athletic success and alumni support.
But the flip side is all those sports that can’t pay for themselves, and all those athletes—women as well as men—whose performances don’t generate revenue.
Universities rely on the money derived from those sports with the future pros to pay for all of those athletes who, as the television commercial says, “will turn pro in something other than (their college sport).”
So, what’s the answer? Here’s a thought:
Do not allow any university to award a scholarship to any student-athlete who is paid for the use of his name, image or likeness.
If a player is NIL-less at the outset, he receives and keeps his scholarship until such time that’s no longer the case.
The logic here is that any student-athlete raking in thousands (or hundreds of thousands) can afford to pay tuition, room and board. (Hardly any graduate before they turn pro, anyway.)
This only works, of course, if ALL college programs are required to abide by the rule. (If they all live by this standard, the recruitment playing field would be as level as it can get. And programs would reduce their operating costs, a little.)
Sure, the biggest, baddest programs—Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan etc. in football, and Kentucky, Kansas, Duke etc in basketball—will likely, almost certainly, be able to dangle more attractive NIL deals than programs who are trying to compete. But those wannabes have always been at some kind of disadvantage.
Where does this leave football and basketball players who have little or no hope of cashing in?
Well, they still can get their college education paid for. And if they’re surprisingly good, they might still wind up playing at the next level after college. Otherwise, “they turn pro” in something else.
Meanwhile, the “have-nots” can field football and basketball teams that resemble intercollegiate athletics as it existed for most of the last century: true amateurs, competing for the love of the game and to bring honor to their school.
And the non-revenue sports remain viable.
Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 14 books, eight of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at email@example.com.