Earlier this week California Governor, Gavin Newsom, signed SB 206 into law that will allow NCAA student-athletes to make money from their name, image, and likeness. You can read up about the legislation, here.
While I believe it is a start and that modifications to some of the NCAA’s rules are overdue, this isn’t nearly a finalized solution. The NCAA is no different from any other massive corporation. Just because an entity is a “non-profit” doesn’t mean it can’t also be profitable and lucrative. Because of that, why would any organization change much of what they are doing without being pushed to do so? In general, they don’t and that is why I feel like this motion is a “start”. It pushed the NCAA to create a working group to look into and consider changes to current rules and bylaws which is important.
The key thing people need to remember is the fact these issues aren’t black and white. News outlets and advocates for both sides will attempt to make these issues as “easy” and polarizing as possible but it simply isn’t the case. All of this is complex, extremely complex.
How many athletes would this actually postively impact?
The fascinating question that first comes to my mind is, “how many athletes would something like this actually help?” Again, this isn’t black and white and arguably, it could hinder more athletes than it actually helps. Look at this pragmatically, athletic departments depending heavily on their donors and financial supporters.
Say I am a multi-million dollar donor or company who utilizes philanthropic giving to an athletic department as a way to promote my brand – think stadium or building naming rights. I spend millions of dollars to put my name on the front of the basketball venue. That money benefits a large group of student-athletes. These deals are often intricate and multi-tiered as to where the money goes, how it is used, etc. Sometimes other non-revenue programs even receive a small portion of these donations as part of the deal that are used to cover general expenses or improvements needed for that program.
Now, let’s say SB 206 holds or even expands across the country. Why would I spent millions of dollars to promote a brand when I could now hire the star basketball athlete to do a series of commercials and appearances for my brand at a fraction of the cost? I wouldn’t. There is no longer a need for me to donate to an athletic department, help a mass of student-athletes, and give as much as I do for the “PR” I’m looking for. While the one basketball athlete benefits quite possibly hundreds of other athletes “suffer”.
There are maybe a handful of athletes at each institution that would see a large benefit and even a smaller number nationally if this expanded across the country. Now, it could be incredibly lucrative for those few but the impact on the rest could be problematic. And we’re talking “athletic departments cutting sport programs” kind of problematic. We will continue that discussion below.
It’s going to help female athletes
This is another argument I don’t entirely agree with and it ties back to the examples given above. It’s the same story, there are only a few that would benefit and the “biggest” names would also be competing with their male counterparts for endorsements and such. Let’s talk about softball, how many current collegiate softball players could pull down notable endorsement deals? Rachel Garcia, Giselle Juarez, Sis Bates, Jessie Harper? Then there are more on the regional and local levels, basically pick the “best player” on a roster and they could maybe position themselves well but from a national level, there is only a small handful. It’s a combination of sport played, fan base, national reach, institution they compete for, etc. There’s so much more at play for who would land an endorsement than just that athlete’s ability.
A decrease in donor money will especially hurt women’s athletic programs. This isn’t to say donors will cease to exist as there are people who truly want to give back to these athletes, encourage the programs/institutions they support to succeed, and to reap the institutional specific benefits that come being a donor but still, any loss of donors could really hurt non-revenue sports and female athletics.
Maintaining a “fair” playing field and recruiting
In a statement from the NCAA they said, “As more states consider their own specific legislation related to this topic, it is clear that a patchwork of different laws from different states will make unattainable the goal of providing a fair and level playing field for 1,100 campuses and nearly half a million student-athletes nationwide.” This was interesting and something that needs to be considered.
Say what you want about “fairness” in the NCAA, I have my own opinions on the way some things are done, especially in softball but this does present an interesting angle that needs to be considered.
“Buying athletes” and throwing games isn’t anything new, think back to the 1919 Black Sox. With these kind of laws coming into play there’s not a lot to stop it from creeping into the NCAA (who has already had many financially related misconduct scandals) and I’m not sure how it could be monitored to ensure it wasn’t occurring. Would you throw a game for $500,000? How about for a million dollars? Especially if it was a “less important” game? I’m sure we all want to think we would say absolutely not but, none of us have been in that position. It isn’t far fetched to consider the possibility.
Another thing to keep in mind is how much wider of a wedge these changes could put into the already loop-sided world of collegiate athletics. The differences between “Power 5” institutions and the “Non P5” is undeniable and that’s never going away. It doesn’t have to either, that is the way of the world be it in competition or business, but I’m not entirely sure if intentionally widening that gap further is productive either. This is potentially burying the Non-P5 schools into a deeper hole when going against the “giants” of the world; it’s not good for the landscape.
“But these institutions make so much money…“
Some do. Most don’t. And, if I can pose this to you, even the ones that pull in large sums of cash, how much are they actually making?
You always hear the exorbitant dollar amounts and figures that fly around in regards to how much “revenue March Madness generates” or how much an athletic department made over the course of an academic year, etc etc. But what figure are you actually hearing? Something people need to pay attention to – especially when talking about revenue collected through an athletic department – are you hearing gross or net profit?
USA Today has a fantastic table showing revenue collected and expenses for 230 division one programs from 2017-2018. The University of Texas led the way with $219,402,579 in revenue; unbelievable right? But here is the thing, that is gross revenue. Texas carried $206,554,432 in expenses bringing their net revenue to $12,848,147. That’s still a large sum of money but it isn’t nearly the $219 million you’ll hear more about.
Running athletic departments is expensive. Period.
While there are often large salaries that account for some of those expenses (and I have my own opinion on the absurdity of all that) in general it’s the day-to-day operations of supporting every program that costs the most. Institutions don’t just carry the revenue generators, they support a number of different programs, many who lose a lot of money.
Everyone welcome NCAA Bylaw 188.8.131.52: “The institution shall sponsor a minimum of 16 varsity intercollegiate sports, including football, based on the minimum sports sponsorship and scheduling requirements set forth in Bylaws 20.9.6 and 184.108.40.206, including a minimum of six sports involving all-male teams or mixed teams of males and females, and a minimum of eight varsity intercollegiate sports.”
Mark Zeigler said it best in his column for the San Diego Union Tribune, “It is not federal law. It is the NCAA’s own conscience, mandating that you must offer a minimum of six men’s sports, eight women’s sports, 16 total sports and at least 200 scholarships. Title IX takes care of the rest.”
Look at the USA today table mentioned above. Ohio State came in third for revenue at $205,556,663 but recorded $203,809,715 in expenses leaving them with a $1,746,948 surplus. The Buckeyes support 30 varsity sports. 30! I think the only University that may carry more is Stanford at 36. Supporting many sports, those student-athletes, and putting the support staff in place to make the entire department run (e.g. academic professionals, communications department, compliance, so many more) costs a lot of money. And those surpluses? Part of them should go back into the development and enhancement of the programs. A great example is when the NCAA issued new safety requirements to the dugouts in softball. Those improvements and facility needs should be paid for by the institutions and through the funding they pull in – not donor dollars. But all the same, those things cost money.
For general reference into some of the highest “revenue generating programs” from the USA Today data – Texas, Auburn, and Alabama support 16 sports; Georgia has 19; Texas A&M, 18; Michigan 27; and Oklahoma, 19.
Here’s an example for you to consider, let’s go north. Does it make any real financial success for many northern institutions to carry baseball or softball? These sports begin in February with many schools on the road to warmer climate areas anywhere from the first 5-7 weekends of competition a year. Let’s say you have a roster plus travel party (coaches, athletic trainer, etc) of 32 people. That means a school needs to pay for airfare, busing, lodging, meals, and miscellaneous expenses for that team and those people every single weekend; and this does not count away contests in conference play. There was one season I worked with a northern softball program and we played six home game over a 50+ game season, SIX. Can you even imagine how much we spent on basic travel costs alone? How does that get paid for?
So I’ll ask again, does it make financial sense for schools to continue carrying these programs? Not really, especially when there is room to cut said programs and remain above the required 16 team threshold. This is where these changes are potential death sentences for programs at institutions such as this. If funding and donor dollars aren’t there, say goodbye to the non-revenue generating, most expensive programs and goodbye to the opportunities and experiences for all of those rostered athletes. That would be a disappointing shame.
Lebron James has been a face for this bill and a champion for the movement. He had this to say about the signing of SB 206, “This is a game-changer for student-athletes and for equity in sports. Athletes at every level deserve to be empowered and to be fairly compensated for their work, especially in a system where so many are profiting off of their talents. Part of the reason I went to the NBA was to get my mom out of the situation she was in. I couldn’t have done that in college with the current rules in place.”
I challenge that though, SB 206 is a game changer for realistically only a very small group of athletes and threatens to harm the large group as a whole. So many times during these conversations programs such as rowing programs, golf, “old weather” outdoor sport programs, wrestling, and lacrosse actually get left out of the conversation. Yes, football and basketball pull in the most money but they help provide the opportunities to their fellow peers in other sports.
The bigger picture of “compensation” and the thin line between amateur and professional sports
The cry for compensation isn’t new and is one of the last lines that keeps the collegiate realm separate from the professional ranks.
If one truly wants student-athletes to be compensated, it needs to come from the NCAA. Attacking or demanding this of individual institutions isn’t a solution and isn’t viable, especially once you get out of the Power 5 world. It will cripple departments and cause the loss of important programs.
But before compensation, can we first and foremost work on more scholarships for student-athletes? Baseball is atrocious right now with 11.7 scholarships for an average roster of 35 athletes. Not everyone knows this but not every young adult that partakes in collegiate athletics is on a full-ride. Maybe we move to a model where that’s the change?
Should a compensation model ever come around, I think you’ll see the loss of the “scholarship” with it. I truly don’t think both can – or should – co-exist; even though with changes to the Cost of Attendance rules you do have some athletes receiving extra cash to “fill the gaps” where scholarships may fall short. Basically it’s a number set by a institutions Board of Regents, not much oversight to it, and a check is cut to certain student-athletes. You can read up about it here, it is widely regarded as an initial form of “pay for play”.
Anyway, you have to pick.
At the end of the day, collegiate athletics isn’t a professional avenue. The veil may be thin but it still isn’t. It’s an odd world though, it’s a clash and intersection of so many different moving pieces. From student-athletes in a higher education setting that will eventually move on to continue their lives to the crazy pressure and demands put on coaches who’s career and livelihood it is to recruiting, win, perform well, lead their players, etc. There’s nothing really like it and I believe that’s the biggest reason these issues are so complex. Something else that seems increasingly more lost is the fact that participating in collegiate athletics isn’t a “right”, it’s a privilege. The world doesn’t end if collegiate athletics does.
For many who grow up in underprivileged situations athletics can provide incredible avenues and opportunities for those individuals to change their lives and better their situation. For some, it can sometimes be their only option. And what if those individuals aren’t star football or basketball athletes? That has to be acknowledged and, like it or not, in today’s society some form of higher education is a necessity in our job field. If this whole thing crumbles that hurts those people, communities, and our society at large.
If you want to go the way of “paying student-athletes”, this needs to be stripped down and re-booted. You’re not going to get “both”, you’re not going to suddenly see student-athletes just start getting paid with nothing else changing. I, at least, have a hard time believing that is how it’s going to work, especially with the challenges and dangers facing departments and coaches right now. I’ve had many coaches share with me out of frustration they may rather have this completely turned upside, make the student-athletes employees, and move on.
What would that look like? Let’s play a hypothetical situation out:
Realistically an institution would hire these athletes as independent contractors and in doing so, don’t need to provide health insurance so that’s on the athlete to either remain on a parent or guardians coverage or seek coverage through the market place or their university.
Institutions would still require athletes to attend classes at the institution – not unreasonable – but the scholarship component would be gone so now athletes are paying their full way through school.
Extra academic services would no longer be needed. That means no more tutors provided and scheduled for student-athletes; no staffers in place to plan out and coordinate academic schedules; no more special services brought in to help an individual succeed; no priority registration above the rest of the student body to ensure scheduling works with athletic schedule; and missing classes and the ability to make up course work, tests, etc. could very well be eliminated as well – depends the professor.
There would also realistically be no protection for injury, disability, or against poor performance like there is now. Example, scholarships cannot be removed or lowered should a student-athlete not perform on the field as they were expected to.
Training table (a term for catered meals provided for some to all teams depending on institution) wouldn’t necessarily be needed either, could cut that out of the budget, and those are now meals athletes are paying and making for themselves.
You may have a worse student-athlete experience as you may end up with coaches who don’t much care about you off the field, they wouldn’t have to. They wouldn’t have to take interest in your family, your needs, how you’re doing in classes, any of that. They would just need to care about the “Xs” and “Os”. Again to acknowledge, I’m sure there are situations out there where that is common place and that is really too bad, that’s not the way it should be. Unfortunately, if collegiate athletics morphed into more of this model I’d fear it would become even more prevalent.
Oh! And we haven’t even talked about taxes yet… in most cases scholarships aren’t taxable income. I know this can be different in international situations but in general scholarships aren’t taxed but “paid athletes” would be. Also, collegiate athletic departments across the country are beginning to be required to tax their staff and coaches on the apparel and other items necessary for their jobs. Collegiate coaches and staff have to wear the apparel the department is licensed under or it’s a violation of said contract and it’s a problem. Doesn’t change the fact their are federal issues arising and it’s now being taxed. Student-athletes currently do not get taxed on their gear, but that would probably change too. Championship rings? Taxed. Everything is taxed.
Situations where this could be a positive
As I offered at the beginning of this, I do believe changes to some of the NCAA’s rules need to be modernized and updated; I fully support that. The NCAA can get really convoluted, confusing, and seemingly oddly “nitpicky” in certain situations.
To acknowledge both sides here and as I hope I’ve shown through this article things can get tricky and turn into a slippery slope very quickly. That’s part of why things are this way but still, everything can’t be black and white.
A great example is Notre Dame basketball star, Arike Ogunbowale’s appearance on Dancing with the Stars. She was allowed to compete while still an active NCAA athlete through an approved waiver and “guidance” from the NCAA office. You can read up about it via this USA Today article. Had Ogunbowale won, she could have the prize money because “it would be for her dancing achievements, because they are unrelated to her NCAA ‘basketball abilities.'” But on the flip side, both her and Notre Dame were unable to promote her appearance on the show outside of a “factual statement” that she would be a contestant. Huh? If it confuses you, I’m right there with you. Why couldn’t Ogunbowale even so much as tweet about her performance on the show or call a fan base to vote? The NCAA said it themselves, her winning was allowing because it didn’t have to do with her basketball abilities. Part of winning that show is developing a fan base and having them vote for you. I get it, a large part of her base is because of her basketball success but do you see why this is tricky? Ogunbowale was eliminated despite receiving some of the highest scores, many attributed this to the inability to call on her fan base to vote for her. Why wouldn’t you want Ogunbowale to do well? Why wouldn’t you want her to be promoted? It’s good for women’s athletics and it’s good for the NCAA.
Another well known situation occurred when UCF’s kicker Donald De La Haye quit football in order to continue creating monetized content on his YouTube channel, you can read about it here.
Where this gets odd. The NCAA wanted De La Haye to separate his account from athletic-related videos and demonetize those but could continue on with “non-athletic videos”. They also released a statement saying, “Contrary to misperceptions, making a YouTube video — and even making money off of it — is not a violation of an NCAA rule,” the NCAA’s statement said. “Further, years ago the membership gave NCAA staff the ability to review situations like these on a case-by-case basis, consistent with previous actions,” (CBS Sports).
But then enter NCAA bylaw 12.4.4 that says, “a student-athlete may establish his or her own business, provided the student-athlete’s name, photograph, appearance or athletics reputation are not used to promote the business. (Adopted: 12/12/06)”
So how does that work? It doesn’t.
Another situation I had personal experience with was when a student-athlete launched a GoFundMe to help collect funds for an emergency vet bill to help save their cat. This individual had to take it down due to these image and likeness bylaws. The GoFundMe had nothing to do with this person’s sport and no mention of this person’s participation in said sport was even made. It was truly done as a way to help them save their pet. Just like anyone else is capable of doing.
This is where things need to change a bit. I acknowledge the “slippery slope” that can quickly happen, that not everyone does things ethically or with pure intentions, and that oversight of all of this is challenging. But somethings do need to change.
The Take Aways
The biggest take away here is this stuff isn’t easy. There’s no denying collegiate athletics are big business and that the NCAA isn’t anywhere near perfect – but it isn’t as black and white as some want to make it seem. These issues don’t just effect the big names in football and basketball – there is a giant ripple effect that impacts thousands of other people and student-athletes who’s experience and opportunities matter as well, it’s all interconnected.
Along with this bill, talks of other states looking to introduce similar legislation, and the NCAA threatening to ban states who do there is the thought that these changes could be the “beginning of the end” for the NCAA. I’m not sure how that all plays out, and we’ll set exploration of that off for another time, but say the NCAA goes down that only gives raise to another large organization to move in and pick up where NCAA left off or opens the door to the utter chaos of independent leagues doing their own thing which has it’s own batch of issues.
I don’t have all the answers, I think a move towards more scholarships is a great start but my is hope people can dive into the nuances and all angles of these issues to grasp the full picture and include all impacted parties.
Watch our episode of Inner Circle TV about SB 206 below. You can also find the topics covered on the show with their timestamps and the video here as well.