It’s Labor Day weekend, so let’s celebrate some victories for one of the most obviously exploited groups of workers in America: college athletes.
You could see the face of college football changing right there in the Wisconsin starting backfield yesterday when the Badgers played Penn State.
Quarterback Graham Mertz had his own product logo designed and ready to go on July 1st when the new NCAA policy allowing players to profit from their own name, image and likeness (NIL) went into effect. Mertz has already signed deals for his own clothing shop in Madison, with Raising Cane’s chicken restaurant and with Panini America, which deals in sports trading cards and memorabilia.
And behind Mertz was running back Chez Melussi, who transferred to the UW from Clemson. Transfers used to be rare because they were frowned upon generally and because NCAA rules required athletes to sit out a year before they could play for their new school. But that rule has gone away and there is even now a helpful “transfer portal” in which players can essentially shop the market for their services.
When Melussi transferred there was no need for him to make any pretense about wanting to pursue a line of study that the UW was known for or to work with a particular professor. He apparently transferred for football reasons mostly or entirely, and that was just fine with all involved, although perhaps Clemson might have wanted him to stay.
In fact, there’s yet another connection to the new business model in that starting backfield, though he’s more of a ghost presence. Mertz is replacing former starter Jack Coan, who transferred to Notre Dame where he is now the starting quarterback. Good for Coan, who will now have tremendous potential for NIL profits as he pilots what is probably the most revered brand in college football.
These two changes — the ability for a player to profit from his NIL and the easy transfer between programs — are likely to result in a sea change in how college football’s business model operates and in how the public perceives the sport.
The long-discredited idea of the “student-athlete” is about to be put out of its misery. College athletes will appear to be more like professionals, loyal to a team and its fans while they play for that program, but also free to “take their talents to South Beach,” just like NBA star LeBron James who, by the way, supports the new NIL rules.
But this is only part of what’s needed. Players in the big revenue-producing sports should be paid a salary by their schools because, while NIL compensation and more freedom of movement are steps in the right direction, they don’t go far enough. This system will allow a handful of star athletes to make millions while the vast majority of players still won’t be able to collect a dime from the billions they produce for others. It’s a fair bet that the unfairness of that situation will soon lead to direct compensation paid to all players.
And, no, this won’t destroy competitiveness — as if the current system hasn’t already tilted the table for Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. Just like the NFL’s self-interest in keeping even small market teams, like the Green Bay Packers, healthy, college sports will have an interest in keeping the games competitive for TV audiences. They’ll work out ways to even the playing field, like revenue sharing or salary caps. That can be facilitated by letting the players form a union, just like the pros, where they can negotiate base salaries for players and other conditions of employment within an otherwise free market system.
Big time college sports has always been a money machine for coaches, athletic department administrators, television and radio networks, shoe and apparel companies, and on and on. The only people who couldn’t feed at the trough were the young men who actually played the games.
These first couple of cracks in that grievously unfair system will weaken the whole dam. It’s about to collapse and the money will be allowed to flow wherever the free market sends it — and more of it will go to those athletes who, if they want to, might also be students.
A version of this post originally appeared in Isthmus.
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