Implications of Supreme Court Decision
After a long battle in the courts, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the NCAA rules that limit educational benefits for athletes are not reasonably necessary to distinguish between college and professional sports.
Under current NCAA rules, athletes cannot be paid or profit from their name, image, or likeness. The scholarship money colleges can offer is capped at the cost of attending the school. The NCAA has long defended its rules as necessary to preserve the amateur nature of college sports.
The NCAA is a multi-billion-dollar organization that profits from the very athletes it has been trying to withhold fair compensation from for decades. According to their website, “the total athletics revenue reported among all NCAA athletics departments in 2019 was $18.9 billion.”
Following, the decision the NCAA said in a statement “while opening name, image, and likeness activities to student-athletes, the policy leaves in place the commitment to avoid pay-for-play and improper inducements tied to choosing to attend a particular school. Those prohibitions would remain in effect.”
Some colleges and universities have already started to partner with companies to help athletes navigate the new landscape and build their personal brands. Several college athletes, some with huge social media followings, already have plans to profit once the rules change.
States have begun to pass legislation supporting the athletes’ rights. For example, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear signed an executive order allowing the state’s college athletes—including players on the nationally renowned Kentucky and Louisville men’s basketball teams—to make money using their name, image, or likeness.
California is a leader as well, allowing student-athletes to promote products and companies, trading on their sports fame for the first time. Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill (SB 206) that will take effect in 2023 to allow players to strike endorsement deals and hire agents.
Is it the Right Thing to Do?
There is no doubt that the college sports industry is big business. The “Madness Inc” report that examines the size, scope, and nature of the college sports industry found that college sports programs took in $14 billion in 2018 through ticket sales, television contracts, apparel deals and merchandise sales. The report also notes that even in the richest conferences only 12 percent of revenue goes to athlete grants-in-aid whereas 16 percent goes to the salaries of coaches. Everyone is getting rich except for the athletes.
Is this a good thing – the ethical thing to do? Are there likely to be unintended consequences? Is the action the first step down the proverbial ethical slippery slope? These are some of the questions that should be discussed to assess the rightness of the new laws in Kentucky, California and whether other states should consider doing the same thing.
Supporters of the Supreme Court’s action point to the millions of dollars college athletes bring in for universities including using their name, image, and likeness in marketing activities. They also point out the amount of scholarship money received does not always pay for the college expenses of these athletes. Moreover, they spend hundreds of hours playing games and practicing, and any injury could derail their professional career.
Doubters say collegiate sports are corrupted by paying student athletes and such a practice turns amateurs into professionals while attending college. That may be the case but look at what has happened to Olympic athletes over the years. In the U.S., for years only amateur athletes were allowed to compete, and they went up against professionals from other countries. As other countries learned to train athletes to become better than U.S. amateurs and gain ground in Olympic victories, we changed the model and allowed professional basketball players to compete with professionals from other countries. The point is the rules of the game with respect to paying amateur athletes have already changed.
What Are the Concerns
To be sure, there are a lot of unanswered questions about paying college athletes. There’s no question there would be a disparity between what student-athletes could earn at the big sports schools versus smaller ones. Does that mean top athletes would be less likely to go to the smaller colleges? If so, how might that affect their competitiveness? Is it fair to students who attend these colleges to be deprived of rooting for a high-level collegiate sports team?
Another problem is some sports don’t generate enough funds for the colleges and universities to pay athletes, i.e., rowing, tennis, and so on. Some students who work just as hard as those in football and basketball would earn much less than the latter. Also, women’s programs produce less revenue so is at fair for them to be paid less than the men?
One way to approach the fairness problem is for each school to have a revenue-sharing program so that athletes in all sports participate in dividing the pie. Most players on a college athletic team will not be drafted by the pros and have nothing to show for their efforts. At least they will have something to get started in life; compensation for giving four years of their lives to the game.
Another issue is whether there should be oversight of how student-athletes spend the money they receive. Perhaps it can be placed in a trust fund while they are college athletes so they don’t spend it unwisely.
Paying student athletes has many obstacles not the least of which is there would be obvious Title IX implications. Title IX mandates equal access to school services regardless of gender. How would women fit into the conversation about compensation?
Another issue is whether football and basketball are the only sports to pay student-athletes. Perhaps each college should develop a national plan and it would have to be a plan for all collegiate sports.
Questions can also be raised about whether paying student-athletes opens a pandora’s box in the sense of whether other students should be paid for their services. For example, should students who engage in the performing arts, perhaps by providing a variety of sources of entertainment for the community, be paid a share of the revenue from these activities? These kinds of performances are often an important cultural event in small communities. It’s an ethical slippery slope when student athletes are paid but not student-performers and others.
I believe the time is right to pay these athletes and equal consideration should be given to other performance-driven endeavors. A possible side benefit for student athletes, and all of society, is they stay in college for all four years, not be one-and-done, and get a good college education.
For me, it seems unjust for colleges to make so much money off athletes and not compensate them. How would you feel if your company used your name, image, and likeness to make deals with other companies and attract new clients, trading on your talents and reputation, and you are not compensated at all?
Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on June 30, 2021. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.