This off-season, the NCAA decided the “Big 5” football conferences would be granted more autonomy in making decisions, a necessary step toward ensuring that the large football-playing schools can better provide for their student athletes. With new TV contracts, conference networks, and online-streaming income, Big 5 schools should be spending more of that money on student athletes.
If the Big 5 are able to offer their student athletes more aid, it could mean good things for the Big Ten in recruiting. In addition to proximity, the minor Florida schools, Central Florida, South Florida, even FIU to a point, offer Florida recruits programs that are just as successful as Indiana, Purdue, and Illinois, if not more so. If the lesser Big Ten programs can offer full cost of attendance, they'll be able to add better recruits each cycle, making the Big Ten more competitive. Not to mention how such scholarships should help entrenched programs like Ohio State, Michigan, and Nebraska. Maybe C.J. Johnson waits a little bit longer on a Nebraska offer if there's more in it than a Wyoming offer.
But undercutting this debate is the decades-old question of whether or not college players should be paid. While I don't think the players should officially be paid, I do think the system should be reformed, and the aid they receive via scholarship negotiated on a regular basis. Also, the NCAA should get rid of rules preventing athletes from marketing their likenesses and names, as such rules create a black market where athletes are exposed to shady brokers.
I don't buy “Oh, the poor student athletes are being exploited” narrative. Players always like to point to what their coaches and schools make, but let's point to what they receive: a degree, a free training table, massive academic assistance, free clothes, gifts at every bowl game they go to, and unbending admiration from their fellow students and the university community. It's far from a bad deal, even if it is an ambiguous deal. Let's not forget: these are 18-23 year-olds. Outside of Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook co-founders, no one gets rich under the age of 21.
Many players do not even qualify for the institutions they attend and have taken “character courses” to even get into school. Once they are in the program, there is a whole staff of tutors and advisers that help them stay eligible. Without football, they are struggling through community college. Consider this: if you just gave college football players money instead of a scholarship, they'd probably just go spend that money, and when they were done playing, they would have no future earnings power. The value of a degree is worth much more than a weekly monetary payments.
The explosion of tuition and student debt over the last ten to fifteen year has exponentially increased the value of an athletic scholarship. According to a report by the Institute for College Access & Success, the average college graduate in 2012 was leaving school with $29,400 in debt, up over $4,000 from 2010 and $10,000 from 2004. Scholarship football players are leaving school without a cent of such debt. Graduating school without debt means you're buying a home and investing at younger age, multiplying the benefit of that athletic scholarship into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and remember, it goes to every football player who stays four years. Even the Micah Kreikmeiers and Donovan Vestals, who do nothing on the field, walk out of the University of Nebraska with a debt-free degree.
Not only is the lack of debt a huge benefit, but the experience of playing in a major college program enhances a resume. Consider how a human resource director in a small college town like Lincoln, Ames, or Manhattan, Kansas thinks when he or she sees “lettered four years at Our Major College Football Program!” Plus, consider the favors former players receive after completing their eligibility. I once met a former Auburn player who told me that he could purchase two Auburn football tickets without the normal scholarship donation of around $1,000 a year.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median yearly income for someone with a bachelor's degree is $55,432, while for those with only a high school diploma the amount is $33,904. That's an increase in earnings of about 40%. So that Bachelor's Degree that athletes don't have to pay for will earn them on average a million dollars more over forty-five years of work than if they just have a high school degree. Yes, it is shameful how universities across America are lifting these young men out of poverty and into the middle class through their ability to play sports.
To those who disagree, I would ask, “At what point would the players be fairly compensated?” You can't just point to the large profits and cry “Injustice!” unless you want to add up how much a player puts in versus how much they get. Which isn't bad.
However, players should have the ability to negotiate their compensation with their school. While I don't feel sorry for the players themselves, I do think it's fair for them to negotiate compensation with their school through elected player reps. Negotiated compensation is a fundamental of a free marketplace, and the NCAA should not stand in the way of its institutions deciding how best to compensate players for what they put in.
While players should have the right to organize and negotiate, they should not officially adopt the titles “employees” and “union” for these purposes. If they become employees, they will have to pay taxes and union dues, hurting their overall compensation package. Schools should also want to avoid this classification, as players will be covered under employment law, thus opening another Pandora's Box. Given how long the paying players issue has simmered, schools should be proactive and evaluate players' time commitment. Athletes should be able to point to on-paper facts and say, "We received fair compensation for what we put in," even if they already do receive fair compensation.
The business model of the average FBS schools is flawed. Before you can value players' input and have a fair negotiation between players and their respective institutions, one has to consider how much money has to be given to sports other than football to make them solvent. It's not just football money shoring up the other sports, it's the scholarship donations that come in because of football. Sorting donations into what is allocated for players is a minefield.
Regardless of any negotiation between a school and its body of players, individual players should be paid for the use of their image, signatures, and endorsements. As was seen with Johnny Manziel and Terrelle Pryor, athletes will go into a broker's dark rooms to profit from their accolades. The NCAA doesn't gain anything from stopping popular college athletes from doing endorsements, and in fact, puts them in positions where they could be taken advantage of. Imagine if Pryor or another star quarterback got in debt to a mob guy and was forced into a points-fixing scandal.
To allow athletes to do endorsements, a model would have to be in place; perhaps at first it would be better to have endorsements deals done through a school, with money from an endorsement or autograph show going into a trust that the athlete receives upon graduation. Schools will want a say in how public their athletes are, and how much time the star quarterback spends doing commercials in the off-season. Nevertheless, when the NCAA is stopping two Iowa players from modeling a line of clothes from a company they started, it's time to deregulate.
Derek Johnson is a Seward, Nebraska native who works for his family's organic farm seed company, Blue River Hybrids, and is a freelance writer and commission photographer. He has been a contributor to Husker Max since 2013, and is a former contributor to the website Husker Locker. Visit his blog,derekjohnsonmuses.com, and follow him on Twitter @derekjohnson05. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org .