This evening is the Big Ten Football Championship game. We’re still smarting over the Badger’s inexcusable loss to the Gophers last week, robbing us of a rematch against Michigan.
But I own a place in the U.P., and paying property taxes there entitles me to conveniently switch my allegiances. I’ll be up there today, arriving just ahead of a snow storm and in time to cheer for the maze and blue from Michigan itself as I watch the game on tv.
And that television audience will be enormous. Turns out the college football world did not come crashing down after all. Nobody is switching off the games because some of the players are getting paid to pitch various products.
For decades the NCAA, and the UW administration, fought against paying college athletes. They claimed that paying the players would destroy the integrity of both the games and the schools, not to mention their key marketing pitch of the amateur “student-athlete.”
Now the first regular football season in which players can cut deals to sell their own name, image and likeness (NIL), and to move freely among schools without losing a year of eligibility, is almost complete. And, guess what? The “product” has not been damaged at all.
In fact, while attendance at games is down, at least due in part to remaining concerns about COVID, the real money machine, which is television viewership, is way up. Through the first half of the season FOX reported that viewership for college football was up a whopping 30 percent over 2019 — the last pre-COVID year. And last week’s Michigan-Ohio State game had 16 million viewers — the largest audience for a regular season game on FOX ever.
The NCAA’s charge that fans would be turned off if they knew the players were getting paid like the pros (or their own coaches) was always a stretch. Now it has been proven false.
Also debunked is the notion that paying players will somehow sully higher education. Back in 2018, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank testified in favor of the NCAA, which was the defendant in an antitrust case brought by former college athletes. Blank said that paying players was such a bad thing that, if it came to pass, she would have to consider dropping sports at the UW altogether.
The next day her office walked that back, but the carefully worded statement went on to say that she opposed athletes getting paid for their NIL and that, in fact, such a thing would “undermine the university community.”
“Chancellor Blank believes that the current set of NCAA rules governing payments to student athletes for the use of their names, images and likenesses are appropriate to maintain a market for amateur athletics in the university setting,” the statement said.
The rule at the time was that the athletes could get no compensation for use of their own name, image or likeness, so Blank was saying that that was just fine with her.
But the NCAA ultimately lost that court battle, so it finally had to allow athletes to make money by endorsing products. Did that undermine the university community? Well, if things have gone to hell because Graham Mertz is selling T-shirts, that’s news to me.
Now that it has been demonstrated that allowing the players to benefit from the billions they produce for others has not destroyed the game or higher education as we know it, it’s time to take the next step. Universities should pay all their players a salary that represents a fair share of the revenue they generate.
This is the real test. As hard as the NCAA and the UW fought NIL, what they really hate is the idea that they’d have to actually pay their labor a fair wage. It’s no skin off the schools’ noses that some sandwich shop or car dealership is paying a few players to hawk their products. But actually recognizing players as employees and paying every player what they’re worth would mean that a new slice would have to be cut from a very rich pie.
NIL doesn’t go far enough because it only benefits star players, mostly at glamor positions, who are attractive pitchmen. While it’s a good thing, it actually widens the inequality of the whole system. A mediocre quarterback like Mertz can make a lot of money while an excellent lineman still can’t make a penny.
The most important thing about NIL is that it proved that the NCAA and its schools were wrong about paying players. The game is more popular than ever, the money-machine just keeps spitting out cash and, if the university community is being undermined, it sure as heck isn’t because of this.
I’m glad some college athletes can finally make a buck off their talent. Now it’s time to really pay all the players. Hail to the victors valiant.
A version of this post originally appeared in Isthmus.
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