Players must get paid

By David Mullen

Penn State football player Brandon Ware signs autographs at Blue-White weekend.
Photo by Mark Selders/Penn State Athletic Communications

Alabama head football coach Nick Saban makes $11.1 million per year, with an opportunity to make another $700,000 in bonus money. Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney makes $8.5 million per season, with a potential bonus of $1 million. Michigan coach and alumni Jim Harbaugh can make up to $8.3 million this year, slightly more than the $7.1 million Ohio State coach Urban Meyer could have made if he had not covered up a coaching staffer’s impropriety, which gained him a three game suspension without pay. 

The NCAA will make an estimated $8 billion on college football this year alone. They will gain greatly from 40 post-season bowl games. And top players like Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, West Virginia’s Will Grier, Houston’s Ed Oliver and Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins will see none of it.

NCAA football players receive no compensation, except in most cases a scholarship, which is certainly of value. But much like John “Bluto” Blutarsky’s GPA at fictional Faber College in “Animal House,” college football players receive “0.0” in non scholarship compensation. This is just not fair.

 Scholar athletes put in endless hours on the practice field, and must make up the lost time learning with late night studies. While the scholarship may include on campus dining facilities, they are often closed when athletes need them most. There is no extra money for eating off campus, not to mention money for textbooks, school supplies and clothing. Athletes are asked to wear a suit to football banquets or alumni functions. What if the player doesn’t have money for a suit?

The locker room is full of jerseys, helmets, shoes, etc. provided to the university by a third party through a contract agreement. But laundry money or a clothing allowance for a player is prohibited.

Although some rules are being loosened, a player often must sit out one year of play if they transfer schools. Coaches are free to move from school to school as often as they want. Players not only don’t get paid, but they watch fellow students working on campus in the library, the cafeteria, the administration office, etc. and getting compensated. Football players are not allowed to have jobs. They already have one, on the football field and it is pro bono.

 A player like Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray found a loophole. Murray, a leading Heisman Trophy award candidate, signed a $5 million contract with the Oakland Athletics to play baseball in spring 2019.  NCAA rules allow professionals in one sport to receive compensation while retaining college eligibility in another. He is playing football this year at a high level, and Murray, Oklahoma and Oakland just pray that he doesn’t get hurt this season. 

Football is the NCAA’s roughest sport. While many top players eye a huge NFL payday when their college careers are over, they risk injury every day. And a majority of the players simply never make it to the pros. While staying in school and earning a four-year degree can be a road to riches outside of football, players face a greater risk of injury or, if good enough to go pro, may lose a year of earning potential in the NFL by not coming out early.

Title IX may be a roadblock to paying NCAA football players. It is a federal civil rights law, signed by President Richard Nixon, passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972. It reads: “No person in the U.S. shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” While more focused on participation than pay, it appears that it would require that NCAA athletes at all levels be eligible for the same compensation.

Johnny Manziel signing autographs.
Photo courtesy of The Big Lead

But frankly, there should be a double standard. You can’t put the multi-billion dollar revenue generating college football on the same level as field hockey. A brain surgeon makes more money that a welder. They may both be at the top of their craft, but there is clearly a pay difference based on need, performance and experience. 

Here is a more plausible solution. Since paying NCAA players would become a courtroom nightmare, consider at least letting players — in any sport — gain income while in school with endorsement deals or signing autographs at sports shows and conventions. Universities do it. NCAA coaches do it. NCAA players should be allowed to “Just Do It.” 

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