I don’t think that it’s controversial to say that balancing academics and athletics is difficult. Both require exorbitant amounts of time and energy alone. Combining the two is a challenge that all student athletes face and for which they are terribly compensated.
California’s recent passage of a bill to change this, however, has ignited debate on whether or not they deserve to be paid for their work. What can’t be debated, however, is that college sports rake in serious cash – up to $100 million a year for some institutions, according to the New York Times. So, why is it so difficult to allow its athletes the same opportunity?
California’s first steps towards rectifying this have begun with the passing of Senate Bill 206. As of 2023, student-athletes in the state will be allowed to profit off their image and likeness, meaning they’ll be able to promote products and companies as a result of their fame, not unlike professional athletes. New York has a similar bill simmering as of Sep.17, with further amendments mandating ticket revenue sharing with athletes, half of which would go into an injury fund.
From the perspective of a casual viewer of college sports, such as myself, the entire exercise is a little shocking. The argument that a scholarship and college degree are fair compensation is one that no longer holds water, especially considering how necessary they are to earn a living in 2019. Just as well, the evidence for serious injuries and diseases like CTE among professional athletes is overwhelming and the same is present at the collegiate level. The only difference, of course, is that professional athletes also get paid millions to make up for the risk.
The NCAA has called California’s bill “unconstitutional” in response to its recent passage while threatening to exclude the state’s schools from competition. Their claim focuses specifically on a constitutional clause that states that only Congress can regulate commerce between states. The bill’s primary architect, state Sen. Nancy Skinner, however, has struck this idea down, defending its legality while also citing the NCAA’s poor track record with anti-trust court cases. What’s clear through all the mudslinging is that the NCAA’s less than stellar history in college sports might be what makes them the least qualified to run them.
In 2014, an Electronic Arts-produced line of video games featuring Division 1 basketball and football players fell by the wayside after issues with their use of player likenesses arose. This culminated in a class-action lawsuit that ended with plaintiffs being rewarded up to $4,000 apiece for the unlawful use of their depictions in the games.
Even more recently, the NCAA and Central Florida University clashed with Donald De La Haye, a D1 kicker who ran a popular YouTube channel, but wasn’t allowed to earn money from it. Deliberations fell through and De La Haye, unwilling to give up his earnings from monetizing his channel, was declared ineligible to play football and lost his entire scholarship. While this particular story ended on a not-so-great note, it’s a reminder of what exactly is at stake here for a lot of younger athletes: their careers beyond college.
“I think athletes with a higher fan base could take advantage of the opportunity by starting their future early,” said Trey Austin, freshman and outside linebacker for the Albion Football team.
Austin also pointed out that athletes with big followings on platforms like YouTube could even benefit their institutions as their fans come out to support them.
Now, this isn’t to say that the expansion of student athlete compensation doesn’t come with its own swamp of murky depths. What happens, for example, if a student athlete starts repping a CBD company even though their school receives federal funding? What if another moonlights as a viral YouTuber and says something inflammatory in a video, putting their school’s reputation at risk? These may be hypotheticals, but they’re much better and safer to ask than what happens if a student athlete suffers a career-ending injury on the field for their troubles. Spoiler alert: it isn’t pretty.
The heart of the matter remains that the NCAA’s grandstanding and threats are out of a fear that the status quo that they have worked so hard to maintain may be crumbling around them. So maybe all the hullabaloo sort of makes sense. These bills getting passed are an existential threat to the organization as a whole, as their system of free labor is being exposed for the farce that it really is. However, the NCAA can shed as many crocodile tears as they want – the future is now, and the future demands payment for services rendered.