An article by Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports highlights one of the many court cases the NCAA is engulfed in at the moment. This one is a suit brought by 2 former college football players (a center from Cal-Berkeley and a running back from West Virginia) challenging the current amateur athlete model the NCAA uses to determine eligibility to play college sports. The players think that they should be entitled to a much larger share of the billions of dollars colleges receive. 

Back in 2014, former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon won a long-fought court battle with the NCAA, seeking compensation for his likeness and name being used to generate revenue without him receiving any of it. That led to the “cost of attendance” scholarship now in use, which pays the athlete’s tuition & fees, room & board, books and some extra dollars meant to address some of the minor, day-to-day expenses brought to light in such avenues as the “Fab Five” ESPN documentary. Most insiders think the NCAA has very little chance to win and cling to their “amateur” model.
There are 2 prevailing opinions in this debate. One opinion is that athletes are already paid, in the form of full scholarships that pay for their time at the university, and should not get any further compensation that is not available to the rest of the student body. The other opinion is that what these athletes do is responsible for tens of millions of dollars in revenue that other students don’t produce, so the athlete should be allowed to have some of that revenue.
Both sides have valid points. Those that are very academic-focused generally have low opinions of athletes. They believe the academic side of things is much more valuable, able to produce things that truly change the world, such as cures for diseases, technology that improves everyone’s quality of life, or developing solutions to society’s social problems, all while athletes do nothing but play with a ball, which does nothing to make the world a better place. Even some sports fans are turned off by the idea, believing athletes already think more highly of themselves than they should, and giving them more money might further solidify in their minds that playing their game makes them higher life forms than everyone else.
The other side of the debate usually sticks with economics and rewards. The university would not have these millions if not for the athletes, so why shouldn’t they reap some of the rewards? New York Daily News sportswriter Mike Lupica has said on multiple occasions, “Horse racing is the only sport where the athlete that competes gets a smaller share of the payout than college football and basketball players.” College football and men’s basketball completely fund the rest of the athletics department at most major universities (which pro-payment believers will point out when it is asked if all athletes should be paid). The more high-profile your football and men’s basketball program, the more attention your university will get from everyone, not just sports fans. The more people that pay attention to you, the more wealthy people pay attention to you. This opens the door to more dollars than you would have had if you didn’t have any good teams.
You can probably tell I’m on the “pay the players” side. What the compensation should look like is where I don’t have much of an answer. Here are some options.
Equal distribution – The Dodd article included a source that said college football is about on the level of the NBA, about $8 billion a year, and that if the plaintiffs win, there could be $1 billion for the players. If the biggest conferences realign into four 16-team conferences and form their own association (more on that in the next post), I suspect that amount would go higher, but let’s assume it gets cut in half. Schools have 85 scholarships and keep about 15 walk-ons to have rosters of about 100. That’s 6,400 players. You take $500 million and give it to 6,400 players, that’s $78,125 per player. Even if this new association was only worth $2 billion, and you gave the players $200 million, that’s still $31,250 each. There’s a pretty good chunk of the population that makes less than that in a year. If it remains an $8 billion industry and the players get $1 billion, you’re talking $156,250 per player. This would probably mean the elimination of the athletic scholarship, leaving the players to pay their own way. The $156,250 would probably cover everything at most of the schools. This would incentivize players to go to public universities in their home state, where they could pocket up to half of the stipend for themselves.  Schools like Vanderbilt, Duke and most of the Pac 16 schools in California would have real heartburn over this distribution. Some of those elite universities would still have trouble covering all costs with their much higher tuition rates.
Percentage distribution – A formula that tracks an individual school’s cost to attend as a percentage of overall college football revenue would determine each player’s payout. This formula could be used to ensure even distribution of funds in excess of the cost to attend. It would take a pretty big computer and team of statisticians to make sure the number came out right. It would be a lengthy process to come to a consensus on the figure.
School allotment – the amount determined to be given to players is distributed to the institutions, who then decide how to allot it to the players. If it’s $1 billion, that’s $15.625 million for each of the 64 schools. The less expensive state schools might use some of it to offset the cost of the scholarship and give the players a fairly small stipend, eliminate the scholarship and give all of it to the players, or somewhere in between.
Coaches would want a system developed so that whatever amount the player pockets for himself is the same or very similar from one school to the next. A system where one school or small group of schools have higher player payouts would quickly send this new association into classes of haves and have-nots, which they already have in the NCAA. The SEC, which already has a built-in weather advantage over the other major conferences and thus tends to get the lion’s share of the best players, would likely be the conference that wants to push the envelope and set up better payouts to keep its advantage over the others. The ACC, which would have the bulk of the academic-minded schools with higher tuition rates, would vehemently protest any monetary advantage.
I think this is coming, as I expect the players to win the lawsuit. What will follow is one heck of a soap opera.
In my next post, we’ll look at what major college sports might look like in a paid-player world.