Silver Reignites Pay-for-Play Debate

Matt Washuta

Newly appointed NBA commissioner Adam Silver made headlines recently when he said the league might consider giving stipends to college basketball players to keep them in school longer. There has been extensive debate lately concerning college athletes’ rights, or more specifically whether they are entitled to payment for their contributions. This debate reached a boiling point as a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently granted the right of the Northwestern University football team to unionize. The NCAA generates approximately $6 billion in annual revenue for all college sports combined and some athletes believe they are entitled to a share of these profits. This is an issue that has stretched to every major university athletic program and has affected the nature of college sports, redefining what it means to be a college student-athlete.

College basketball has generated millions of dollars in revenue for the NCAA and each conference.Television rights, advertising, ticket sales and donations have contributed to the strong profits the organization has raked in. The players receive nothing directly from these profits. Some believe a full scholarship that covers the costs of an entire college education and food, healthcare provided by college campuses, stipends for specific circumstances including family emergencies and clothing, academic assistance and media exposure is more than adequate for college athletes.

While access to these services is more than appreciated, it seems that the current nature of athletes’ contributions may entitle them to compensation.This year’s NCAA basketball postseason tournament brought in millions of dollars of revenue for some of the major conferences. For example, the Big Ten Conference is due to receive $25.6 million for its teams’ participation and success in the tournament this past season. It is both the players and coaches that elevate the teams to a successful standard that entitles the teams to major revenue. The coaches are paid up to millions of dollars for their services and sometimes receive bonuses for postseason success, perhaps the players are entitled to be viewed as employees as well.

Some argue that the players are still considered participants in amateur athletics and a free education is sufficient for their services. The educational value of college is underappreciated and invaluable in many respects. However, with the increasing focus on college athletics events and programming, athletes are consistently drawn away from their academic endeavors and subjected to a greater focus on their athletics participation. In becoming a major revenue-making institution, the NCAA has undoubtedly experienced setbacks in the academic aspect of the student-athlete experience. The organization intends to provide an experience that complements the student experience with a high-level athletic experience, which is to augment the educational experience for students on college campuses across the country. It is possible NCAA involvement in attempting to establish stronger, more profitable exposure has become greater than the importance of the educational aspect of the organization. It may be argued that the NCAA should look to promote its academic purposes and reduce its investment in the business aspects.

Some of the most talented basketball players view the NCAA as a stepping stone to the NBA and participate in their college experience for a mere few seasons or even for a single season before moving on to the NBA. Since the NBA has adjusted the minimum age requirement for draft eligibility to 19 years old, many draft prospects play for a season in college and become draft eligible as they turn 19 during the season. This trend, labeled “succeed and proceed” by Kentucky head coach John Calipari, has become a rampant phenomenon across major college basketball programs and there is little incentive to curtailing this trend as players look to earn a compensation for their efforts and help elevate their present financial situation as well as their families’ financial situation.

This is not to say that NCAA basketball players should receive million dollar contracts or that college recruiting should turn into an all-out bidding war for top talent, but that reform is needed to account for the changing college athletics landscape. Even the NCAA has agreed that change is needed and athletes should be better appreciated for their services. The concern rests in the risk that in providing compensation to athletes in major sports, athletic programs may have to cut sports that earn little to no revenue in order to be able to compensate the athletes in major revenue sports. Another concern is in applying equal rights to both men and women.Sadly, women’s sports do not attract the same kind of attention or revenue as men’s sports, but that should not mean they are to be constrained to a smaller compensation for their services.

The nature of college athletics has changed and has become a major component of the sports business industry. There are arguments abound that NCAA athletes are not only college students but also employees and are entitled to their fair share. There remains no clear solution to this issue, and many are finding alternatives to resolve it, such as those of the unionized Northwestern University football team. Others are illicitly making payments to players, a major violation of NCAA rules. One fact does stand out, however. At the current rate and under current policies, it is infeasible that the NCAA can survive this pressing issue of compensating college athletes and remain free of any further obligation to the new, modern conception of the college student-athlete.

Contact Matt Washuta at [email protected]