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Should NCAA student athletes be employees, and paid their fair market value?

NCAA student athletes ought to be recognized as employees. Right?
NCAA student athletes ought to be recognized as employees. Right?
Image: USA Today Sports/Kevin Jairaj
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On Saturday night, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield picked up a Heisman Trophy, the annual award given to the best player in US college football. He deserved it. He led the Sooners through an epic season, taking the school to a Big 12 title and a spot in the College Football Playoff.

If Mayfield had spent an NFL season throwing for over 4,000 yards and 41 touchdowns, his agent would be pulling for one of the biggest salary extensions in league history. Shoe, car and pizza companies would be knocking on his door. But in college, he’ll get just $516 per semester month as a part of a stipend given to him by the university. Of course, that’s on top of the full sports scholarship he receives from the school, but some believe that still isn’t fair. And while he’ll get a further $2,500 to pay for his family’s transport costs to the Rose Bowl for the College Football Play-Off semi-final against Georgia, some believe that Mayfield is pocketing far less than he’s worth, while the universities are making hay.

And the sad fact is that the only reason why Mayfield’s getting that stipend is that in 2014, football players at Northwestern University wanted to unionize in an effort to get paid fully by the university. Although the case failed, the NCAA—which itself makes billions from CBS and Turner Sports for the March Madness men’s basketball championship tournament—ruled a year later that players should be paid stipends to cover miscellaneous expenses above the cost of their football scholarship. But Mayfield’s stipend doesn’t even look at a player talent-wise—it’s based on the costs of the school (The top stipend in the country is actually from the University of Cincinnati, which is paying its athletes $6,082 per player, according to a survey by CBS Sports.)

Jay Bilas, one of ESPN’s top college basketball analysts, thinks that players are being exploited. “The NCAA uses the players as billboards for apparel deals and uses their names and likenesses to sell the product, and to sell media-rights deals. The NCAA continues benefiting from this multibillion-dollar business, while the players get only a scholarship, and the only ones exploiting the athletes are the NCAA and the member institutions,” he wrote after a scandal in which Adidas was investigated by the FBI paying bribes to high school basketball players in an effort to get them to Louisville, with whom they have an equipment deal. Ten were arrested, including an Adidas employee, and it cost Louisville’s star head coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich their jobs.

Bilas is right: The universities and their conferences have certainly make a lot of money from their players. The Southeastern Conference—which contains Alabama, Georgia and Texas A&M and Big Ten (Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State) both signed multi-billion, multi-year deals with the likes of ESPN, Fox and CBS, serving to fatten their wallets. Schools also benefit from in-stadium sponsorships, as well as season ticket sales, in which each buyer has to give an additional ‘donation’ to the school’s athletic department. Of the major money-makers, things were just bigger in Texas. A&M pulled in $194m in 2015-6, while Texas was second amongst university athletic programs with $187m.

And chewing from the hay that the universities are making are the players’ coaches, who demand astronomical salaries. Ten football head coaches are paid at least over $5 million per year, with Alabama head coach Nick Saban leading the way on $11m per year. In basketball, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Kentucky’s John Calipari pocketed $7 million each. Coaches also cash in six-figure salaries from endorsements on top of that. Some will argue that coaches get all the pressure, but with these contracts come massive buyouts. Take the case of UCLA’s Jim Mora, who was fired just after Thanksgiving after a string of disappointing seasons. His buyout was over $12m.

Market values

Cody Worsham, the editor of ‘Tiger Rag’, which covers sports at LSU, told Quartz that the NCAA should “allow third parties, like shoe or apparel companies,” to compensate players. “Student athletes should be allowed to earn their market value.”

According to a report by Business Insider in November, the market value of one of Worsham’s LSU players is $494,000—the sixth-highest in the game behind Texas, Alabama, Michigan, Tennessee, and Notre Dame. Even the average top-division player is worth $163,087, according to the report, noting that the average football team makes $29.5 million in revenue each year. The average FBS player is worth $163,087 a year, the report says. Considering Mayfield’s brilliance last season, he’s probably worth a lot more than that.

Football life

Of course, there’s the argument from many—including many non-athletic students—that the players already have a pretty good life. On top of the stipend, they are given a free education, they have world-class gym and practice facilities, they are fully insured against injuries, and they get the adoration of hundreds of thousands every Saturday as well as on-campus benefits in the form of everything from backhands from boosters and smiles from sorority girls. There’s also the thought that players can also come out of college virtually debt-free—unlike the many millions of ‘normal’ students, who will come out with tens of thousands of dollars worth of college debt.

Bilas argues that while college athletes aren’t mistreated by their universities (the University of North Carolina recently ran into NCAA trouble for giving players ‘fake classes’ in an effort to keep them eligible)—they do exploit them. “When you use a person to make money while at the same time limiting that person from making money, you exploit,” he says.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. But there’s one thing’s for certain: Everyone’s getting fed up with the same argument being made back and forth. And the saddest thing? Even though players are now earning stipends, there seems to be little progress towards paying them what they’re really worth. Indeed, the stipends seem designed  to cut off the debate about players being recognized as employees, and paid their fair market value, once and for all.