WHISNANT: Pay college players

The NCAA should adjust its rules and pay its athletes

With the men’s basketball team safely in the Sweet Sixteen, March Madness is well under way at the University. There are few things more satisfying about being a college student than getting together with a good group of friends and cheering on players you can count as classmates. That said, the madness of the NCAA tournament is hardly limited to the basketball court. Behind the buzzer beaters and highlight reels lies a harsh economic reality in which a few people become extremely wealthy at the expense of the athletes who actually provide work.

According to a study by the National College Players Association and Drexel University’s Sport Management Department, college basketball and football players are collectively denied $6.2 billion in compensation over their college careers. In the same study, the researchers found the average male basketball player’s scholarship had a fair market value of $1.06 million, a figure well beyond what any current NCAA scholarships provide. Despite receiving over $770 million per year from broadcasting the Tournament, the NCAA prohibits players from receiving any kind of payment for their work. In a statistic highly relevant to the number one-seeded Cavaliers, NCAA champions Louisville saw their players denied an estimated $6.5 million each in fair market value. Rather than the players who practice ceaselessly and execute stunning plays on national television, the NCAA, telecoms and college athletic administrations see all the profits.

Taylor Branch, author of “The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA,” writes the NCAA helped craft the designation of players as “student-athletes” (and therefore not employees) to avoid costly workers’ compensation claims for players hurt in the often-dangerous world of college sports. Though critics will claim that an NCAA scholarship is all expenses paid, the limits of medical coverage are often hazy, and many athletes have to go into their own pockets to pay for the enormous costs of their injuries. The University’s own “Student-Athlete Handbook” reminds players that medical expenses are not “automatically taken care of” and that support is “limited to making co-payment financial aid available to student-athletes only for medical services rendered for athletics-related injuries or conditions.” That financial backing counts for something, but with many players nationwide encountering five-figure deductibles, it’s far from a secure arrangement. For fans of college sports, perhaps the shaky coverage of medical services and denial of payment during athletes’ prime earning years contribute to players leaving college for professional sports earlier than they would otherwise, diminishing the quality of the game for everyone.

In addition to inoculating the NCAA from full legal liability for player damages on the job, the NCAA prevents players from seeing a dime when their likenesses are featured on the cover of video games, for instance, that sell millions of copies with characters that often closely resemble real players. Beyond the particularly visible example of video games, players are also barred from receiving profits from the jerseys and other merchandise they help sell. From tickets to t-shirts, the NCAA consistently stops players from getting their fair share.

The NCAA will claim that it can’t afford to pay college athletes what they’re worth, but with a record surplus in 2012 and pay for top executives totaling nearly $6 million, this claim does not withstand scrutiny. Beyond arguments of practicality, there is a deeply American philosophical principle at stake in this debate: people who work should be paid. As long as the NCAA continues to operate under the illusion that players who are featured on primetime television and magazine covers aren’t professionals, the University’s athletes are poorer and less medically secure for it. That’s anyone’s definition of madness.

Gray Whisnant is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Wednesdays.

Published March 26, 2014 in Opinion

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