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NCAA Dawdling Over Amateurism Reform Could Be Multibillion-Dollar Mistake

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The NCAA is under assault on multiple fronts. The Ed O’Bannon class-action suit is going after likeness rights. Jeffrey Kessler’s class-action suit targets the amateur model itself. If not Northwestern, some school will win the right to unionize and vote one into existence eventually. All that is leaving aside potential liability ramifications from concussion research and football.

College football’s power conferences have consulted with their attorneys, who will take this thing as far as their clients wish (while paid by the hour). But a resounding legal victory cementing the virtues of not paying athletes or covering them in the event of injury seems an improbable outcome. As a decadent fourth-century Rome delights in its own, increasingly lavish entertainments, the Visigoths are crossing the Rubicon.

FBS Football and Division I basketball have, in all forms but rhetoric and compensation, ceased being extra-curricular activities. They are multibillion-dollar entertainment enterprises. Schools earned a total of $14.3 billion playing sports last year per the Dept. of Education. Factoring in the NCAA brings the total to about $14.7 billion. That’s more revenue than the MLB, the NBA, the NHL and NASCAR earned combined. The total will increase in coming years with conference networks and the College Football Playoff.

Much of that wealth is concentrated at top programs. Alabama’s athletic department, at $143 million, made more than every NHL team and all but five NBA teams. Mike Krzyzewski, paid $9.7 million by Duke, makes more than any coach in American professional sports. Despite this, some feel UConn star Shabazz Napier should have been more resourceful about filching food from the cafeteria.

College sports aren’t that profitable, running up expenses of 13.8 billion. But most of that stems from athletic departments inventing ways to spend the revenue. Much of the TV money influx has gone toward a facilities arms race (to recruit kids who purportedly have no value) and increasingly bloated athletic salaries. Michigan has 61 athletic department employees earning six figures or more. The average median coaching salary has increased 102 percent in college basketball and 93 percent in college football since 2006.

Schools could leave the amateurism to the courts or to a potential organized labor dispute. Or, with billions of dollars at risk, they could settle. We posited in our College Football in 2034 piece that a settlement could come relatively cheaply. Agreeing to…

* A stipend for all athletes that covers the true cost of attendance
* Outside commercial income (like the Olympics)
* A fund to help defray future healthcare costs

would be sensible. It would satisfy the players and undercut any unionization. It would sap the impetus behind the class-action lawsuits. It could be done without amending Title IX or overhauling the present varsity sports model.

The trouble, of course, is the university presidents. Many of them, however much cognitive dissonance it requires, remain true believers in the amateur ideal who will recoil from anything resembling professionalism. They need time to be talked around, time the NCAA and prominent programs may not have for much longer.

The Winds of Change are blowing against the NCAA. The longer this process goes, the less probable a settlement not involving significant direct payment and revenue sharing becomes. A fair professional split of revenue in major American leagues is around 50 percent. Further dawdling could mean a multibillion-dollar mistake.

[USA Today Sports]

 

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