Sports | Sports Columns

SIMMONS: Student-athletes are not all amateurs

  • Pay for Play? | With Northwestern football players allowed to form a union, the days of NCAA-mandated amateurism in college athletics could be ending.
  • Arpi Youssoufian for Spectator
    The Olympic Model | Provisions of the Northwestern case indicate that student-athletes would be able to receive outside sponsorships, like Olympic athletes.

When I read last week that the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of allowing Northwestern’s football players to unionize, I was happy. It’s about time players are able to acquire some leverage against the almighty NCAA by creating the College Athletes Players Association.

What CAPA wants to accomplish is admirable, and at least to me, common sense. According to its website, the association wants guaranteed medical coverage, the risk of brain injury to be further minimized through less-strenuous practices, incentives and a trust fund to improve graduation rates, due process rights, and—probably the most divisive issue—an increase in athletic scholarships and compensation for commercial sponsorships.

The thing is, I don’t really understand why it’s so divisive. Why are people so wont to believe that college athletes are “amateurs” and shouldn’t be paid? A Washington Post-ABC News poll came out last week, in which 64 percent of individuals asked said they opposed paying college athletes, with 47 percent “strongly against” it. Maybe it’s because of the company I keep, the shows I watch, and the podcasts I listen to, but I could barely believe that when I read it.

My question is, in a society that values capitalism as much as America does, why is giving someone his or her market-value compensation such a bad thing? How is it that Texas A&M can charge $84.98 for a No. 2 football jersey and Johnny Manziel is not privy to any of the profits? Last week, Jay Williams, former Duke basketball star and second overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft, said on ESPN’s “His and Hers” podcast that he learned Duke made $2.3 million off of his No. 22 jersey in sales while he was in college. I know he received an athletic scholarship—which is renewed year by year, by the way—but at $50,000 a year, a four-year education still only costs $200,000. How is that anything close to fair?

I realize having athletes being paid by the university would not necessarily be considered just by everyone. There’s no way any Columbia football player—or any Ivy football player, for that matter—could make the same as someone with the popularity of Manziel. And that’s saying nothing of complying with Title IX. But is that really a reason to throw our hands up and just conclude that nothing can be done, as NCAA President Mark Emmert would have us all believe?

Can we at least stop pretending that all NCAA athletes are “amateurs?” Obviously the majority of student-athletes can have that qualifier, but let’s be real: College football serves as the minor league to the NFL. That’s nearly the same as the NBA and its you-must-be-at-least-19 rule, though at least in that case an 18-year-old has the option to go overseas or to the D-league. And you can’t tell me all these Division I athletes are being marketed as amateurs—especially when the Southeastern Conference has a chance to make $500 million on its new television network

One of the factors that make CAPA’s goals reasonable is that it does not directly call for athletes to be paid by their schools. Instead, the association suggests starting with athletes receiving due compensation for commercial sponsorships. And I think this is a way that most athletes across the nation could start profiting from their athletic accomplishments—including those in the Ivy League.

It would be great to have Alex Rosenberg be on an ad for Milano Market. Or David Speer for Fairway. Or Kanika Vaidya for V&Ts. And this could happen with local businesses and strong athletes all over the Ancient Eight. The ads could go in game programs and school papers. What better way to bring in students as customers than an endorsement from one of their peers? This is certainly not the same kind of endorsement as an athlete with a national profile could land—Jamies Winston could probably land Gatorade if this scenario were to be realized—but it at least would allow an athlete to profit somewhat on their own image the way the universities do.

There probably isn’t a perfect solution to compensating college athletes, but the present system is no longer acceptable. And I for one sincerely hope that all of CAPA’s goals can be achieved within the near future.  

Myles Simmons is a Columbia College senior majoring in American Studies. He is a former sports editor for Spectator. A Second Opinion runs biweekly.

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