March Commentary: College Athletes Capped Compensation

Taylor Tubbs

As the Northwestern football players court case shows, the debate over paying college athletes is at the forefront of college sports today. This debate includes issues of unionization, compensation, and amateurism of college sports. Another key part of the debate is the fact that student athletes are not allowed to profit off of their NIL (name, image, and likeness), which is a notion that is stuck in the 19th century definition of an amateur. Currently, court cases across the country are deciding if college athletes are really “employees” of universities and if they are allowed to form unions. The nature and magnitude of college athletics is rapidly evolving, and the definition of what restrictions are placed on college athletes needs to be updated with the times. Therefore, college athletes should be allowed to profit from their NIL beyond the value of an athletic scholarship.

Before delving into the current issue, it is helpful to examine the history of where the notion of the “amateur athlete” developed. As with the evolution of the modern sports culture, the gentleman amateur athlete developed in England. The American university system mimicked the British model of middle class amateurism. American amateurism began with Ivy League football in the early 1900s, and developed into an amateur system for two main reasons (Collins). The early men playing at the Ivy League schools were mostly upper class gentlemen who did not want to be paid for respectability reasons. At the same time, universities made profits from ticket sales to these football games. Many university’s football ticket sales were “a cash faucet that they did not want to turn off” (Collins). Ivy League universities, who still do not offer athletic scholarships, set the precedent of amateur college athletics. Amateurism not only served as a means of avoiding paying young players, but also to use moral authority to govern these players.

College sports have been big business since the early 1900s, and business has blossomed. In 1904 Harvard made a profit of $50,000 from football ticket sales (Collins). In 2015, the Texas Longhorns had revenue of nearly 65 million (Smith). A new cash stream that has developed over the past few decades is the use of university logos and individual player’s NIL in video games. Universities already solicit donations from boosters, who donated $34 million to the University of Florida’s Athletic Association in 2013 alone (Jones). From personal experience, I have seen my own picture on materials the UAA used to solicit donations.

While revenue for university athletic programs has skyrocketed, the wealth that the actual players receive has remained quite static. In service for their play, college athletes can receive up to a full scholarship that covers tuition, books, housing, meals, and most recently, cost of attendance. The majority of student-athletes do not receive a full scholarship. However, for those athletes that do receive a full scholarship, this is a substantial sum of money; the estimated cost for the University of Florida for fall, spring, and summer for an in-state student is $27,000 and over $50,000 for out of state students (“Basics: Cost…”). There are also non-monetized benefits of being a student-athlete such as tutors, gear, traveling across the country for competitions, and first choice of classes.

The value of a full scholarship doesn’t sound like a bad deal for student-athletes, until it is compared to the salaries of coaches and athletic directors at these institutions and in the NCAA. As of 2013, the highest paid athletic director in the nation is David Williams from Vanderbilt, who earns $3.2 million a year. Jeremy Foley, the University of Florida’s athletic director, makes $1.2 million annually (“NCAA DI Salary…”). Even more astronomical are the coach’s salaries. Nick Saben, the head football coach at the University of Alabama, is the highest paid college football coach in the country and the highest paid public employee in the state, earning just over $7 million annually (Goodbread). The value of a scholarship rarely exceeds $50,000 a year for a student-athlete, despite the fact that athletes are the ones who bring fans to games and wealth to the university. The gross disparity between the compensation of student-athletes and their coaches and administrators could be remedied by allowing players to collect on their own name, image, and likeness from sources outside of the university.

It is unreasonable to expect universities to pay extra salaries to their student athletes, as a myriad of complications arise with this. Would salaries differ for those athletes not in revenue generating sports? Would public universities loose their tax-exempt status by declaring student-athletes employees? Would revenues and salaries have to be distributed evenly among males and females due to Title XI? Also, despite huge revenues brought in by some athletic programs, most university athletic associations net a loss every year. Especially for schools not in the Power 5 Conferences, paying student-athletes extra salaries beyond the additional cost of attendance scholarship is not economically feasible.

Paying student-athletes also faces major legal obstacles, as seen in the recent O’Bannon v NCAA case. In the case, football players from Northwestern argued that they should be able to unionize and profit from their own name, image, and likeness. This was recently shot down in the O’Bannon Court Case, where the Ninth Circuit declared that universities only need to provide compensation up to cost of attendance, while an additional proposal for $5,000 allotted for NIL compensation was scrapped (McCann). Judge Jay Bybee of the Ninth Circuit wrote the majority opinion expressing concern that “offering student-athletes cash sums untethered to educational expenses….would transform the NCAA into a minor league status” (McCann). Compensation for NIL is beyond the scope of educational purpose, but is it above anti-trust laws that are aimed at promoting fair competition in the economy between universities? This is the main argument that is likely to be posed in subsequent appeals cases. The O’Bannon case is unlikely to reach the Supreme Court due to the high volume of applicants, but this is an issue that affects the entire nation and deserves revisiting in the courts.

In summary, college athletics is no longer the amateur world that it was at its inception. College athletes no longer come predominately from the upper class, especially the revenue generating football and basketball teams. The definition of an amateur college athlete is antiquated and needs to be updated to fit the expanding popularity and revenues of the NCAA including multimedia contracts and donations. Allowing players to collect compensation for their name, image, and likeness is the first step towards leveling the playing field that is grossly tilted in favor of the NCAA structure.


Works Cited

“Basics : Cost of Attendance.” UF Office for Student Financial Affairs RSS. University of             Florida, n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.

Collins, Tony. Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History. New York: Routledge, 2013.    Print.

Goodbread, Chase. “Nick Saban Edges Jim Harbaugh for Top CFB Coach Salary.”    NFL, 8 Oct. 2015. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.

Jones, David. “Florida Athletics Budgets Record $100 Million.” USA Today. Gannett, 12             June 2013. Web. 05 Feb. 2016.

McCann, Michael. “What Appeals Court Ruling Means for O’Bannon, NCAA.” What the            Appeals Court Ruling Means for O’Bannon’s Ongoing NCAA Lawsuit. Sports            Illustrated, 2 Oct. 2015. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.

“NCAA DI Salary For Athletic Directors In 2013 – CollegeAD.” CollegeAD NCAA DI      Salary For Athletic Directors In 2013 Comments. College AD, 2013. Web. 26             Jan. 2016.

Smith, Chris. “College Football’s Most Valuable Teams.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 22     Dec. 2014. Web. 17 Jan. 2016.


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