Pay the Players

College sports as we know it are coming to an end. And that’s a very good thing.

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could rock the NCAA. But, even if the court rules in favor of the association — which appears unlikely — college sports will still look more like their professional counterparts in just a few years.

Let’s start with the case before the court. It’s an anti-trust suit that alleges that schools get together under the auspices of the NCAA to fix compensation for players. There really is no defense to that. That’s exactly what they do. But the NCAA argues that the illusion of “amatuerism” and the “student-athlete” is what the whole enterprise is based upon. Get rid of those myths and the money machine is finished, they say.

The NCAA’s contention seems unlikely at best. If schools are allowed to compete for players with enhanced scholarships (the case doesn’t involve actual salaries; that will, and should, come later), some kind of mechanism will be put in place to make sure the playing field is no more uneven than it already is. That’s because it is in every school’s best financial interest for the games to be competitive. That’s why all the professional leagues have some form of revenue sharing or salary caps.

In oral arguments before the court on Wednesday, conservative Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Samual Alito were joined by liberal Justice Elena Kagan in harsh questioning of the NCAA’s attorney. If the liberals hold and Kavanaugh and Alito join them, look for the NCAA’s barriers to fall.

Sen. Cory Booker played football at Stanford. He’s a leading advocate for paying the players.

And then, all heaven will break loose. Because once you open the door to competition the leap between enhanced scholarships and an actual salary becomes just a hop. Schools will have an incentive to want to give the best players the best financial deal. The free market will start working just as it has done so handsomely for coaches and athletic department bureaucrats.

Mark Emmert, the head of the NCAA (the organization fighting to keep athletes from earning a dime in the $15 billion college sport industry) makes more than $4 million a year, It would be better for the NCAA if Emmert did nothing for his money. Instead, he leads an organization that goes out of its way to shoot itself in the foot. Why, exactly, deny workout equipment to women’s teams in their March Madness facilities? And why deny the women use of the marketing term “March Madness”? Emmert is the engineer on a train wreck.

But even if the court’s ruling goes against the players or is muddled, other moves are afoot. About half the states have introduced legislation allowing players to benefit from the sale of their own image or likeness — they could now do commercials for the local Cadillac dealer, just like their coaches.

The first such state law just went into effect and California’s law is set to kick in in 2023. That places pressure on other states — or better yet, Congress — to act. If they don’t, then schools in states that allow endorsement deals will have a competitive advantage over those that don’t.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has introduced legislation that would provide just that national framework. But it would go beyond just endorsements to allow salaries, players unions, health insurance and more. The bill has momentum. The NCAA, which once owned Congress, is now reviled on the Hill.

And, finally, there’s the transfer issue. It used to be uncommon for players to move between schools. Now, it happens all the time. While the main reason players move now is to get more playing time or to flee a coach they don’t click with, there’s no reason they won’t soon move to get the best financial deal they can. Good for them.

The best part is that the move to give college athletes a fair deal is bipartisan. Democrats like it because it’s pro-labor while Republicans are for it because it’s pro-free market.

This isn’t a close game. Paying college athletes is a slam dunk.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

2 thoughts on “Pay the Players

  1. Just curious, because I know nothing about college sports or compensation: are academic standards also part of this discussion? Are student athletes required to carry a normal course load and meet some sort of grading standard?


    1. While I can’t answer specifically, broadly speaking, yes. The NCAA has detailed rules on what makes a player eligible for sports. The general idea is to make sure they are “students” by some minimum standard of the definition.


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