College Sports: Is Complete Change Coming?


The “professionalization of college sports” discussion has been raging in the sports world ether for a while now. Initially, the idea that college athletes could be considered workers was one that saw little movement or support amongst the general public.

Sportscasters, college presidents, and the even the average man on the street, typically dismissed the idea. A select few saw a new potential reality in those early days, but now that Northwestern’s Football Team has been granted the right to unionize, people are starting to approach the topic with more nuance (well, sometimes…) and some deserved gravitas.

(Note: Eugene Lee’s points are absolutely ridiculous by the way. There is ALREADY a tiered perk system at play with partial and full scholarships. Add in school’s promotion of certain players and his points are nothing short of foolish. There is already a “pay scale” by sport, established by scholarships per sport. It’s like Eugene Lee did no research before appearing on this panel.)

Northwestern’s football players demonstrated to the Chicago Labor Relations Board that they meet certain pre-defined criteria, and should therefore be considered employees. While NU will appeal the decision, and while this particular matter is far from over, the fact that some legal credence and precedent has been established leads me to believe that will see more of these cases begin to pop up in the very near future, as opposed to less.

New cases may ask for better medical coverage, four year scholarships (instead of one year revokable-at-will scholarships), concussion testing, along with the potential to earn a pay check, as Northwestern has, while others may ask for more, or even less, than the NU football players have requested. The point is that players are asking for more perks, and the courts are hearing their cases. It may be a long time before any of this is sorted out, but make no mistake about it, things are going to change.

What makes this really interesting is how things will change. Now, I’m no legal eagle, but I can see this playing out in a number of different ways. Here are a couple different scenarios that show just how crazy all of this could potentially be, in no order of probability or likelihood whatsoever:

1) Revenue Sports Leave the NCAA

Big time college sports make big time money. Oregon, Auburn, Florida, Texas, Ohio State, and a bunch of other big time schools make serious money off of their football or basketball programs. Coaches are paid millions of dollars and earn huge endorsement deals from brands. Why? Because they can, and the players can’t. If a brand could endorse an athlete over a college coach, 9 times out of 10, they would.

So maybe the next step is to create a revenue only NCAA division, where football and basketball teams (the only two sports with enough revenue making programs) can opt IN to a higher tiered division. In this division, players can be paid (let’s say up to $50,000 per year), and still must attend classes and meet other NCAA eligibility criteria.

Other sports remain as they are now, but sports with large revenue potential could opt to pay their players if enough schools wanted in. This would have to be a sport by sport decision by the NCAA, and it would have to be a school by school decision as to whether or not they would opt in to the “pro” division. This approach basically treats college football and basketball players as minor league professional athletes. For all intents and purposes, that is what they are now. This scenario just makes it more honest. It’s kind of like Johns Hopkins playing D1 lacrosse. Sure, the lacrosse guys are Hop athletes, just like the soccer players, but there is something different about them too, and yet they all exist on the same campus.

This approach would keep the teams in the NCAA, and the NCAA would simply create a higher division than Division 1. NCAA Division Zero? NCAA Division Pro? Names aren’t important. The basic distinction is that the NCAA would add a new tier, where players could be given more, as is the case now between D1, D2, and D3.

2) Athletes Receive More – All Sports

Another option is that entire D1 programs start paying all of their players in some way. If football and basketball didn’t leave the D1 ranks, all athletes could receive a chunk of the cash these revenue sports generate. Instead of paying John Desko six figures, Syracuse could take some of that cash (or use basketball or football money) to pay their lacrosse players, or dole our extra services.

I personally find this option extremely unlikely, because it would require NCAA D1 teams to distribute money to all their athletes, and that doesn’t seem like a sustainable path, or a good way to get blue chippers in the door for big time sports. The NCAA does not seem keen on allowing ANY of their athletes to get paid. It is unlikely they would allow ALL of them to be paid. This would also create a steep advantage for any school with a big revenue producing sport.

3) Athletes Receive More – Selected Sports/Teams

The NCAA could combine the first two options and keep basketball and football at the D1 level, while simply allowing greater latitude for both of those sports. Exceptions have been made in the past and rules have been modified to fit certain sports. We have already seen this with basketball and football recruiting timetables. It’s a likely first option in my opinion, but it can’t last long. If the NCAA keeps in line with their own efforts to streamline rules across sports, this option is just a place holder until the next step is figured out.

4) The NCAA Makes Athletes Amateur Again

This fourth option seems very unlikely to me, but I guess it’s possible. Right now, D1 athletes are sometimes asked to put in more than 50 hours of work per week for their sport. That’s more than a full-time job, AND in some cases they are making their college serious bank just by playing.

If colleges across the country and the NCAA want to make this issue go away, there is something very simple that they can do: Make college athletes amateur athletes again! Oregon football has better uniforms (and many more of them) than any pro team in ANY sport. More people go to Florida Gators football games than Jacksonville Jaguars games. Some college football coaches make more money than their pro counterparts. Heck, college lacrosse is still the pinnacle of our sport!

If we want to make sure that college athletes can still be student-athletes, maybe we need to ensure that they are amateurs a little better? Take away the special perks or early class registration, special housing, free gear, and special weight rooms. Make the athletes just like regular students again.

Note: this option will NEVER happen. There is too much money to be made. But here are some other ideas on how it could, hypothetically, work:

Put a cap on coaches’ salaries right away – You want to make money, go coach in the pros. Big bonuses should be tied to one thing: graduation rates. Graduate kids from college, get paid. College coaches should NEVER be the highest paid employee of the state. Your work is not more important than what the governor does. Deal with that fact. If you have a graduation rate of 8%, you should be fired immediately.

UConn’s police chief had to step down for making $250,000 a year. In 2013, a year AFTER he retired, UConn paid Jim Calhoun, their now retired basketball coach, a BASE salary of around $400,000. Before retiring, he made around $3 MILLION per year. So Police Chiefs are overpaid, but basketball coaches make millions? Great set of priorities, UConn!

Place a stricter limit on out of season practices. Put a limit on hours a student-athlete can play their sport per week, and hold teams to it in a meaningful way. When you see a student-athlete turn in work like this, suspend them from the team, and get them academic counseling immediately! If that player remained eligible, played in games, AND handed that level of work in, the kid was being exploited for his athletic abilities. Period. Point Blank. It’s STUDENT-athlete, not (student?) ATHLETE. Get it straight.

Put a real emphasis on the student-athlete again. Ensure the kids get an education AND play sports… and not just play sports. If we want to compensate these students as amateurs, we need to treat them, and more importantly, educate them as amateurs.

5) Just Let It Be…

The NCAA could also just let it be, and do nothing other than appeal every decision, and stick with the status quo. This approach wouldn’t shock me completely, although I think it’s a loser in the long-run. The NCAA could point to the decades of amateur competition, and detail how it has maintained an amateur status throughout its existence. The stories would be powerful, and history would be in their favor initially. But it wouldn’t stop the lawsuits completely, and eventually, one would get through and make a big difference. At that point, the NCAA’s hand would be forced, and I can’t see an entity that large just waiting around.

Final Thoughts

You may not agree that certain college athletes are professionals. You may think that the scholarships, gear, luxurious locker rooms, special housing, preferred classes, and other perks are more than enough payment for these guys and girls. You may think that these players are being cry babies, or that they should be happy with what they get now…

But if they are already being compensated for all the work that they put in with the above perks (and sometimes more), are these student-athletes not professional already? Do they not represent a school, an ideal, that is larger than themselves? Are their names and images not broadcast on ESPN every day? Are they not used to sell product, to sell their school, and in the end, to sell themselves?

I love the ideal of amateur college athletics. The idea that some guy gets up at 7am like everyone else, heads to class all day, hits up the library, and then goes out and throws for 330 yards to beat Michigan on Saturday in the Horseshoe is a grand one, but it has been lost for a long time in many places. There are still those throwback student-athletes out there, but for my money Option #1 is the most open and honest approach we could take.

The true student-athletes, who are there to get an education and play sports, can still be D1 athletes. They can get scholarships and continue to live the way they do now. But certain teams and sports, where winning and the pros are always on the table, should own up to their current situations and acknowledge that they are no longer truly amateur in any way, shape, or form.

Millions of dollars are being made by everyone but the players risking life and limb on the field and court. The market is allowed to operate freely, except for the talent on the field. Either the NCAA and D1 colleges need to seriously rein in the money, or they need to call it what it is: professional sports.