It happens about twice every year. During the College Football Playoff and the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, someone points out exactly how much money is being made off the games.
The reaction is the same: Why not pay the players? After all, the players are the reason people are watching. They should be compensated for their time and effort. This year has been much the same with people breaking down exactly how much each player in the tournament could make just by splitting revenue from TV rights. The problem is that every mechanism for paying players has issues.
The first is the fairness of pay and Title IX. The simple response is to pay revenue generating sports — AKA football and men’s basketball. Those sports support the athletic budgets for most every other sport in the country. That means that schools with historic track and field programs, hockey programs, and women’s basketball programs that don’t generate revenue have a situation where those players shouldn’t get paid? Let’s say everyone gets paid. Now we may have to spread the dollar amount even thinner. There are 173,500 Division I student athletes.
Title IX creates another issue. According the NCAA website, Ttitle IX has a “provision that requires that the same dollars be spent proportional to participation is scholarships. Otherwise, male and female student-athletes must receive equitable “treatment” and “benefits.”” Getting paid is a benefit. That means we would already be in a situation where non-revenue generating sports would have to have paid female athletes to make schools Title IX compliant. There’s not an easy way to decide which non-revenue generating athletes should receive the money.
Once Pandora’s Box is open — paying athletes–, there could be star athletes who feel they should be paid more than others. When A.J. Green was suspended for selling his jersey while at Georgia, people pointed out that he should get paid. Number 8 jerseys were the top seller. Does this mean that Green should get paid more than a lineman on his team? Not many people are buying Georgia 55 jerseys. The same could be said for college stars such as Johnny Manziel or Tim Tebow. When they were enrolled, people were buying their jerseys. Logically they should get more money because they are generating more revenue. It doesn’t make sense to split that money between the star who is responsible for the jersey sale and some red-shirt freshman who never played a down.
Look, I get it. Everyone is making money except these college athletes. Coaches get paid. TV channels make ad revenue. Venues benefit from hosting games. Schools get exposure and money. Brands receive marketing benefits. The problem is there is no fair mechanism to distribute the income to the athletes. It’s the secondary problem created by the institutional design of college athletics that is the real issue. It’s easy to say ‘pay the athletes.’ It is not easy to figure out how to do so.
Michael Colangelo is Managing Editor of The Fields of Green and Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute.