Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) signed a bill into law that will allow college athletes to hire agents and make money from endorsements, drawing strong opposition from the NCAA and universities in California. The law will likely face legal challenges, but its passing brings new life to the debate of whether college athletes should be paid.
Current and former college athletes have praised Newsom's action, including NBA superstars LeBron James and Draymond Green. These proponents say the bill could be transformative for young athletes; for too long, they argue, corporations and colleges have been able to excessively profit off these students even after they have left college.
Paying college athletes isn't as simple as it sounds, though. First of all, where does the money come from? The way I see it, there are multiple ways players could be compensated, but each comes with its own caveat.
Many proponents of paying college athletes point to how much money the school makes through its athletes. Payments proportional to generated profit sounds great in theory, but in practice, it gets muddy. Should a five-star North Carolina men's basketball player be paid $200,000 while an equally-decorated track and field runner makes just $2,000? And does that same basketball player get paid $100,000 if he goes to Wichita State, which can't afford to pay top salary? Does a Cornell sprint football player need to pay money to the school because its program is actually losing money?
The fact is that some college sports are much more lucrative than others, and if rules came into effect that allowed schools to offer salaries to incoming recruits, schools may decide to cut their squash program entirely to pay for a once-in-a-lifetime high school wide receiver. The average football team already makes more than the next 35 sports combined. Do we really want these sports to disappear altogether? And what happens to Title IX, given that women's sports bring in much less revenue than men's sports?
This policy could have broader implications than just for colleges themselves. If there are far fewer collegiate programs for certain sports, that will almost definitely lead to a lower interest amongst youth, and eventually lower investment into youth programs. If an athletically-gifted kid has an initial interest in lacrosse, but their parents know that their child could potentially be making a good salary playing football in university instead—a much more attainable dream than the NFL—I think it would be foolish to think that the kid will continue playing lacrosse.
There are also a slew of complexities that arise when student-athletes become employees of the school. Do labor laws apply? Could players be fined? Cut from the team? It's a more complicated issue than the average college sports fan may think.
A salary from the schools is the wrong way to go. There are too many variables to consider, and paying college athletes a salary could wind up eliminating many other college sports programs. That being said, athletes should not be denied compensation altogether.
I believe the best way to compensate athletes should take a two-pronged approach. First, college athletes should be paid a universal basic income. No, this isn't for the same reason presidential candidate Andrew Yang wants UBI. The NCAA must maintain fairness while paying players. Sure, Zion Williamson probably contributed more to his school's financial success than that freshman point guard at Utah State does. But college isn't meant to operate like the rest of the economy per se. It is supposed to be a mixture of different backgrounds and thoughts where the playing field is equal.
It isn't any easier to balance school with squash than it is to balance school with football—they are both huge time commitments. All athletes should at least receive some modest amount of income regardless of the sport they play. Their earnings should come from the NCAA, who has profited immensely from the product created by these students. If schools were contributing to student-athletes' salaries, they would just raise tuition anyway.
Secondly, college athletes should be allowed to have unrestricted access to endorsements. Why should colleges be able to block external entities from wanting to pay these students to be affiliated with their brand? They shouldn’t have a monopoly over student athletes' earning potential.
Nothing precludes the bright computer science student on academic scholarship from using their talent to do contract work for Facebook to make extra money on the side—and that’s for a student who isn’t bringing in millions via TV deals and merchandise sales. Of course, only 0.01% of college athletes will be able to make huge money from endorsements.
Some people might argue that this would be unfair. Trevor Lawrence making $500,000 while some benchwarmer makes $2,000 has to ruin chemistry, right? Wrong. Do you really think Lawrence's teammates don't know that he is going to be a multi-millionaire in the next two years?
This form of compensation—using both a base salary paid by the NCAA and endorsement-based compensation—can actually increase parity among teams rather than make the playing field more uneven. If schools bid for players, athletes would chase the big-market teams. But if Zion Williamson will make the same amount from the NCAA, regardless of his school, and will still be able to make money from endorsements on the side, what's preventing him from going to Utah State?
JACKSON JOFFE is a College and Wharton sophomore from Nashville, Tenn. and an Associate Sports Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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