Evolving Landscape Calls for Reevaluation Concerning Payment of College Athletes

Intercollegiate athletic competition began in 1852 when the Harvard and Yale crew teams raced on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Formalized participation in baseball, football, and track and field continued to gain popularity in the following decades. The first American football game took place in New Brunswick, N.J. on Nov. 6, 1869 when Rutgers took on New Jersey—which later became Princeton—in front of an audience of 100. 

As an increasing number of collegiate sports programs emerged across the country, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States—now known as the NCAA—was formally established in March 1906 to reform the rules of play for various sports and enforce eligibility criteria for student-athletes. In 1964, colleges and universities began awarding student-athletes with athletic scholarships in recognition of their significant athletic commitment and the prestige and notoriety they provided the school.  

But what has been the biggest change since that first crew regatta in 1852? 

The simple answer is revenue. Football and men’s basketball are the leaders of the industry, generating billions of dollars of revenue each year. The athletic departments at Texas and Texas A&M both make more than $200 million of revenue each year, and all of the top-20 revenue producers in the NCAA each make over $130 million a year. It is time that student-athletes are rewarded in a way that is reflective of these increasing revenues.

The commercial industry of college sports consists of highly paid coaches and administrators, multimillion-dollar facilities, national television contracts, massive endorsements from advertisers, and enormous revenues from ticket sales. Universities across the country have ultimately been forced to decide if they are institutions of higher learning with a football subsidiary or a football enterprise with a student body fanbase. 

USA Today’s annual review of the compensation of coaches found that the average total pay of FBS coaches in 2021 was $2.7 million. Alabama head football coach Nick Saban—the highest-paid coach in the FBS—makes $9.3 million each year, and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney makes $8.3 million a year. 

There was a time when coaches weren’t paid much more than professors. A study from the National Center for Education Statistics reported that the average salary of professors in 1970 was $18,000. Former Notre Dame head coach Ara Parseghian earned $20,000 in 1964. In 1974—his final year—it went up to $36,000, and that was after 11 seasons, 95 wins, and two national championship titles. 

Then comes television coverage. The College Football Playoff and six major FBS bowl games have a television contract with ESPN worth $7.3 billion, and CBS and Turner Sports have a 14-year, $10.8 billion television contract for the rights to televise the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. A 30-second commercial during the championship game of March Madness costs at least $1.49 million, according to Business Insider.   

Michigan’s football stadium holds 107,601 fans. Seven universities have stadiums that hold over 100,000 people. Tickets for big games at Michigan can cost upward of $300 in the upper decks, and the big donors pay even more for prime seating. A majority of fans wear school apparel from the school’s bookstore and buy concessions at the game. 

Coaches make millions, universities’ athletic departments make hundreds of millions, and television networks, advertisers, and the NCAA make billions. And what do the actual participants receive? Tuition, room, and board—and that is only if they are on full scholarships. 

Amateur student athletics have been replaced by big-time commercial and professional entertainment. This multibillion-dollar pie is being sliced up, and the student-athletes don’t even get a piece. A change needs to be made. 

Even with increased revenue and the ability to provide more compensation, college athletes are denied access to the billions of dollars that they generate, as people in positions of leadership—coaches, university presidents—are granted the profits.

Because the economics of college sports have changed so drastically over the years, the evolution of the collegiate athletics landscape calls for reevaluation of compensation practices. The NCAA’s compensation standards should adapt to fit the current times by rewarding the players who are responsible for such massive profits. 

Some argue that the schools benefit from the large sum of athletic profits, which ultimately benefits the rest of the student population, student-athletes included. There are a variety of models for paying athletes that won’t require universities to give up funding allocated elsewhere. 

Professional sports leagues should contribute funds to universities, especially considering that they are the beneficiaries of player development. Athletic programs should have separate fundraising programs targeted specifically at compensating players. At schools whose athletics programs turn a profit, a percentage of earnings from apparel providers, advertising deals, and media contracts should be awarded to the players.Beginning in June of last year, the NCAA made a change that gave college athletes the opportunity to profit off of their name, image, and likeness. This change was a step in the right direction but not a fully encompassing solution. Now is the time that the athlete, the most essential part of the industry, be paid as they deserve. Because without them, the sports entertainment enterprise would cease to exist.

Featured Image by Jess Rivilis / Heights Senior Staff

February 20, 2022