Give the Players a Piece of the Pie

The ankle injury to presumed top NBA draft pick Zion Williamson of Duke has brought out the extreme arguments on both side of the "should college athletes be paid?" issue.

Some of those who rightfully believe that star athletes are getting the short end of the stick by receiving just a scholarship while coaches, schools, and conferences reap millions (or billions) of dollars, support the notion that Williamson should sit out the rest of the season to protect his upcoming NBA payday.

How absurd.

As Charles Barkley said on TV over the weekend, "where did we get to the point where you got clowns on TV saying, 'oh, don't play?' That's what we do. We play basketball...I get so mad when people act like money's the only thing that matters in the world. Like, 'oh, dude, you're going into the NBA. Don't play.' That's ridiculous."

I couldn't have said it better. So don’t be surprised if Williamson returns to lead Duke to the Final Four.

Equally maddening are the arguments on the other side from those who want to preserve the non-existent purity of the amateur athlete model, or those who admit, "yep, the players are getting screwed, but it's impossible to draw up a compensation system that makes sense, so forget about it."

That's like saying, we can't stop crime, so let's not try.

We’re well past the point of trying to justify the fact that the NCAA makes over a billion dollars a year from televising March Madness, Coach K earns $9 million, and UCLA signs a $280 million deal with Under Armour, while the athletes—the ones who play the games and draw the crowds and TV eyeballs—receive no compensation other than the “cost of attendance.”

Today’s players are, quite frankly, more like employees than students. Their lives are consumed with practice, games, conditioning, and travel. They can’t take classes that conflict with practice. They can’t spend a quarter overseas. To satisfy the demands of TV partners, they must go on the road to play games virtually every night of the week, with no regard to missed class time.

But with any proposed payment plan, questions abound. How will you determine salaries for the best players vs. the reserves? What about “minor” sports athletes who don’t bring in any revenue for their schools? Do they get paid? Where does the money come from?

There are no easy answers, and no compensation structure will be perfect, but here is one man’s suggestion for a framework.

1. Pay no “salaries,” but increase the value of athletic scholarships by up to $10,000. Establish ranges by NCAA classification and/or conference affiliation. Academics can justify it as a reflection of the amount of extra “class time” athletes devote to their sport. Realists can justify it as giving the players more of their fair share.

(Incidentally, a ruling is expected soon from U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken in the Allston case, which is seeking to remove all caps on compensation to student-athletes. Many expect her to rule for the plaintiffs and give conferences some latitude in determining their own guidelines for member schools).

2. Pay a stipend, perhaps $500 to $1000, to all members of league championship and national championship teams. That way, the backup point guard and the second string tackle get something, just like the NBA first rounder and the star quarterback.

3. Pay a similar stipend to athletes who win individual conference or NCAA championships, including the swimmer who wins the 100-meter freestyle and the gymnast who wins in floor exercise. That way, the "minor sports" people get their share.

To wit, “amateur” swimmer Katie Ledecky made hundreds of thousands of dollars for winning Olympic medals, but couldn't earn money for the NCAA championships she won at Stanford. That makes no sense.

4. Allow all athletes to own the rights to their image and likeness, and to receive compensation for jersey sales, autograph signings, commercials, shoe deals, etc. That way star players will get what they deserve, much as the coaches and schools profit from their endorsements and sponsorships.

Stanford sold thousands of jerseys with Andrew Luck's number and he didn't get a dime. Critics argue, well, he was going to be a first round draft pick and make a fortune in the NFL anyway, so he didn’t need the money. But how about the college QB who isn't a pro prospect? His college years might be his peak "earning years." How is it fair to deny him the chance to make money off his name, image, likeness, or jersey sales?

As for the money, well, there's plenty available. TV contracts and sponsorship dollars continue to increase exponentially.

It’s simply a matter of changing priorities. Obscene amounts of money are being spent on coaching salaries and the facilities’ arms race.

Schools need to re-direct some of the dollars being spent on strength coaches, analysts, and locker rooms. End the geometric escalation in contracts for head coaches, athletic directors, and assistant coaches (many now make over $1 million). Trade some of the perks in the athletes’ lounge for dollars in their pockets.

By implementing these proposals, we might end some of the under-the-table payments currently being made. We might end the current hypocrisy of paying everyone but the actual performers. And we might induce players to stay on campus longer before jumping to the pros, if they actually receive some proportionate compensation for their labors.

Because the kids play the games, put their bodies on the line, and put butts in seats in stadiums and in front of TV sets.

Everyone else is getting rich. It's time they get a piece of the pie.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//gacavalli49@gmail.com

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