Several events earlier this year have challenged the notion that college athletes are amateurs.
In March, lawyer Jeffrey Kessler filed suit against the NCAA, arguing that college sports should work on a free market model along the lines of professional sports.
Then, in April, the Northwestern University football team took a secret vote that could lead to unionization, after the National Labor Relations Board ruled the players were employees of the university, not just athletes and students. The university has appealed.
There has also been a significant victory.
In August, athletes earned the right to profit from their likenesses when a U.S. District Court agreed that former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon should be compensated because a figure on a college basketball video game looked and moved an awful lot like him.
As part of the ruling, which is under appeal, Judge Claudia Wilken said men’s college basketball players and football players can be paid up to $5,000 per year for use of their names, likenesses and images in live television broadcasts. The money would be awarded after they graduate or the players’ eligibility expires.
The NCAA is taking steps to prevent the courts from deciding its future.
In August, one day before the O’Bannon ruling, it gave the Power Five conferences – the 65 schools covered by the most lucrative of the TV rights deals, including the ACC and SEC, which both include teams from the Carolinas – autonomy to offer broader benefits to athletes.
Those changes could include the so-called “full cost of attendance” stipend – cash for expenses beyond a scholarship.
ESPN commentator and Charlotte resident Jay Bilas, a NCAA critic, says the additional funds – about $2,000 to $6,000 a year – are not enough.
He believes that Johnny Manziel, who won the 2013 Heisman Trophy as the nation’s best football player while at Texas A&M, should profit from his image as a college athlete. The NCAA suspended Manziel for part of a game for signing memorabilia, including footballs and photographs. The suspension was brief because the NCAA couldn’t prove that Manziel was paid, only that he knew the items would be sold.
Thursday, on Twitter, Bilas made the same argument about University of Georgia running back Todd Gurley, a 2014 Heisman frontrunner from Tarboro who was suspended indefinitely by the school, reportedly for signing memorabilia for a fee.
Bilas argues that because universities profit from a player’s popularity and skill, the players should, too.
“I think it’s decided,” Bilas says. “It’s just when, and I think most people know it.”
Value of a scholarship
Plenty of athletics directors disagree with Bilas.
Steve Patterson, athletics director for the University of Texas, was in the audience while Bilas addressed “the Amateur Dilemma” at a college sports summit in Santa Monica, Calif., in April. He took the microphone and fired back.
Bilas argued that a scholarship is an incidental expense in a multi-billion dollar enterprise.
Patterson said a full ride is valued at $69,000 per year for the average Texas football player when factoring in benefits such as insurance, medical care and academic services. Because that scholarship is tax-free, Patterson says, the gross value would put that player into the top one-third of yearly household incomes in the U.S.
“I don’t think people understand the value proposition for a student-athlete on campus,” Patterson told the Observer. “And I think that it’s too easy for the sports press to just focus on the one half of 1 percent of student-athletes who might have a chance to play in the pros and not focus on the 99.5 percent of student-athletes who but for their athletic scholarship, in many instances, would not have a chance to attend a university.”
Patterson says that if players want more than an education and the exposure college athletics affords, they should look to the professional sports leagues.
“That’s where your beef is,” he says. “It’s not with the NCAA. If you don’t want to come to college, you don’t want to be a student-athlete, fine, don’t be one. Go do something else. God bless you. I got no problem with it.
“(But) to blow up the college model for the benefit of one guy like Johnny Manziel and disadvantage 499 students on our campus is ludicrous.”
Texas has an annual budget of $150 million and its own television network. If anybody could afford to pay players, wouldn’t it be Texas?
“I’m not afraid to go play that game,” Patterson says. “But I don’t think it’s the right game because it destroys college athletics.”
That means, Patterson says, that at the vast majority of the 351 Division I schools, scholarships would be cut in half.
“That’s bad for universities. It’s bad for the student-athletes. It’s bad for the country. It’s bad policy,” he says. “But that’s what’s going to have to happen if you’re going to take all the money out of those sports and dump it into a few folks’ hands on the football or the basketball team. Then you can forget about wrestling and gymnastics and track and field and tennis and golf and all the other sports.”
The cost to other sports scares other athletics directors, too.
Bubba Cunningham, who oversees 28 sports as athletics director at UNC-Chapel Hill, argues that moving toward a professional model – or an Olympic one, where athletes’ compensation varies by sport – would reward the few.
“Spending more money on fewer kids is not what college athletics was built on, and I’m afraid we’re moving in that direction,” he says.
Charlotte 49ers athletics director Judy Rose agrees.
“Is that the collegiate experience? Is that what we are about? Are we going to get in a bidding war and the highest price gets that individual regardless of the academic experience?” Rose asks. “I just really struggle with that.”
Other costs escalating, too
Compensation for a player’s image and expenses are not the only possible new costs.
John Currie, athletics director at Kansas State and a Wake Forest graduate, said he’s budgeting millions in additional expenses over the next three years.
He’s allotting $1 million a year for unlimited meals and snacks for athletes under the new “Shabazz Napier rule,” instituted after the Connecticut basketball star told reporters at the Final Four he sometimes went to bed hungry.
Currie is earmarking another $1 million a year for the “cost of attendance” stipend – about $4,000 per scholarship athlete. And he’s figuring on another $1 million in 2016 to pay football players and men’s basketball players – and another $1 million for female athletes to comply with Title IX – for the name, likeness and image fees that could come into effect.
“I’m proud that we’ll be able to make that kind of transfer to our athletes in all of our sports and enhance their opportunities and their experience, but that $3 million has got to come from somewhere,” Currie says. “So that’s why eventually there will be a reduction in opportunities across the board. And one can’t argue that; it’s just going to happen. It can’t not happen.”
Bilas disagrees, pointing to coaches’ salaries. Alabama football coach Nick Saban is making $7 million in base salary alone this season. Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski is among the highest-paid college coaches, making a reported $9.7 million in 2014. North Carolina’s coach, Roy Williams, makes about $1.7 million from the school, plus undisclosed bonuses.
“Nobody says, ‘What’s going to happen to the wrestling team if a coach makes $8 million?’ But if the athlete gets paid, now we’re worried about wrestling,” Bilas said.
Patterson equates paying coaches’ salaries to companies paying big salaries to CEOs.
“This is a $100 million-a-year enterprise, and we’re going to pay the top person that creates that value 5 percent of the gross, any enterprise out there on the planet would be happy to do that,” Patterson said. “The fact of the matter is people will come watch the University of Texas play year in and year out, regardless of who the one guy that comes along every 20 years is.”
Who provides the most value, then, the coach or the player? Or is it the name of the school?
“These discussions are too hard to do in a sound bite,” he said.
Bilas believes he’s changing some minds. “What I’m hearing now is, ‘I never really thought about that,’ and ‘I kind of agree with you,’ ” Bilas said. “They don’t want to, but they do.”