The Difference Between an Unpaid and a Paid Student-Athlete? Not Much.
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We’re halfway through the college football season, and business sure is booming. All the big football powers are packing them in just like they did before the pandemic. Television ratings are higher than they had been in years. The money is pouring in. Network executives, advertisers, athletic directors — and fans — are very happy.
If you had been listening to the National Collegiate Athletic Association for the past, oh, 50 years or so, you could be forgiven for wondering why college football hasn’t collapsed this season. It was supposed to, now that athletes are allowed to sign endorsement deals.
After all, the N.C.A.A. has long claimed that the essence of college sports is “amateurism” — its euphemism for not paying the players.
While the coaches, conference commissioners and athletic directors all reap the financial rewards that flow from the multibillion-dollar business of college sports, the athletes themselves do not. According to the N.C.A.A.’s creed, players must be viewed as students first, with sports merely an extracurricular activity, something they do for the love of their school. Mark Emmert, the president of the N.C.A.A., has said many times that if the players were paid, they would be employees rather than students and that this would change everything.
The N.C.A.A.’s amateurism rules aren’t just rooted in the supposed ideal of the “student-athlete” (a term, by the way, popularized in the mid-1950s to prevent injured players from getting workers’ compensation). During the past dozen years, as the association has been hit with a series of antitrust lawsuits, it has stressed a business rationale as well.
It goes like this: Amateurism is college sports’ secret sauce — that is, it’s what makes the product unique. Fans want to believe that the players on the field are all students. And they want to believe that the players have the same loyalty to the university that they do. Paying players would destroy that illusion, the N.C.A.A. believes. What’s more, if college athletes were paid, the distinction between college and professional sports would be erased — and fans would suddenly realize how inferior teenagers playing for their universities were compared with the pros.
Here’s how Mr. Emmert put it in 2014, testifying in an antitrust case: “Fans appreciate the fact that these are indeed college athletes. They recognize that they are students. They recognize that they are not the greatest athletes.” He added, “To convert college sports into professional sports would be tantamount to converting it into a minor-league sport. And we know, in the United States, minor-league sports are not particularly successful.”
Until now, there was no way to test this thesis. Antitrust economists like Andy Schwarz, who played a key behind-the-scenes role in bringing the lawsuits against the association — may have scoffed at the N.C.A.A.’s arguments. But during the various antitrust trials, the plaintiffs’ economists went to court with models showing that paying players would have no effect, while the N.C.A.A. had models showing the opposite. Who could say for sure?
Starting in 2019, however, state legislatures began passing laws forbidding universities to punish athletes who took endorsement fees or cut licensing deals — “name, image and likeness,” or N.I.L., deals. The N.C.A.A. tried to grab control of the N.I.L. phenomenon but failed miserably. With a July 2021 deadline fast approaching, the association finally decided to allow college athletes to accept N.I.L. money without fear of losing their athletic eligibility.
Three months in, the results have been nothing short of remarkable. First, it turns out that a lot of companies were eager to sign deals with college athletes. High-profile football players landed deals almost immediately. The Alabama quarterback Bryce Young is said to have deals worth close to $1 million. Auburn’s Bo Nix and Alabama’s Malachi Moore are both endorsing Milo’s Tea, an Alabama company. A moving company based in Tampa, Fla., College Hunks Hauling Junk, signed two members of the Miami Hurricanes football team.
But it’s not just football players — and it’s not just male athletes in the “revenue sports.” The Connecticut basketball star Paige Bueckers trademarked her nickname, Paige Buckets, with the expectation of a branded product sometime down the line. Lexi Sun, a Nebraska volleyball player and Instagram influencer, started her own clothing brand. She also signed a deal with Borsheims, the Omaha jewelry store owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Boost Mobile, a wireless provider, said it was signing “hundreds of N.C.A.A. athletes across a wide variety of sports and universities.” And on and on.
Before N.I.L. payments were allowed, athletic administrators expressed fear that the deals would create dissension on teams between those who had them and those who didn’t. It hasn’t happened; instead many athletes seem to view N.I.L. deals as something any of them can land with enough initiative.
Another fear was that universities would use N.I.L. deals as a tool to lure talented high school athletes. In fact, that has been happening. The University of Nebraska, for example, has set up a program that will “position all Husker student-athletes for success in N.I.L.,” according to its athletic director. And when Alabama’s football coach, Nick Saban, let it be known that Bryce Young was getting rich from his N.I.L. contracts, he was sending a message to every athlete he hopes to recruit.
As the economist and N.C.A.A. critic Ted Tatos put it on Twitter: “It’s fascinating to watch schools go from ‘NIL will end college sports’ to ‘pick our school because we offer the best NIL opportunities.’ It’s almost as though they always knew their previous position was utter nonsense.”
Of course, the most important consequence of players’ making outside income is that it has had zero effect on the business of college football — or any other sport. As Mr. Schwarz predicted, fans love college football just as much today as they did before players were able to earn money. The popularity of college sports, it turns out, does not depend on “amateurism.”
Eleven years ago, when I first started writing about the N.C.A.A. in the pages of this newspaper, I often felt I was whistling in the wind. The N.C.A.A. was utterly unyielding. Some athletic directors said they would drop a sport rather than pay a player. Most fans were against the idea. It was hard to imagine that one day Lexi Sun would be selling her own branded T-shirts online.
But here we are. Everyone can see now that college athletes making deals for themselves is just capitalism, nothing more or less. Even Mr. Emmert now acknowledges that allowing players to reap outside income through endorsements and the like has been a net plus.
And yet the N.C.A.A. still maintains that paying players an actual salary would bring about the ruination of college sports. No one believes it anymore. Which leads to the final question: When will the work force in this multibillion-dollar business finally be compensated for its efforts? Based on recent experience, it could be soon.
What do you think? Should college athletes be paid? Let us know: [email protected]