Sports

It's Time for the NCAA to Pay Student-Athletes

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As the long, warm summer days give way to the rusty tones of autumn, college kids around the country attempt to stay centered and focused for the trials of the coming school year. In addition to the normal stressors of finding a place to live, means of transportation, textbooks, supplies, and the myriad of other concerns for an incoming student, National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) athletes must also contend with a deluge of eligibility rules.

The latest iteration of the NCAA Manual for Division I student-athletes runs nearly 450 pages. Two of the 450 pages define what it means to be a student-athlete while over 400 pages are dedicated to detailing restrictions on the student-athlete and making it clear the athlete cannot benefit from his or her skillset or name. To ensure that there's no confusion over how much free pasta players can be given, the word "meals" appears 80 times in the 2013-14 NCAA manual. 

As a former member of the University of Texas women's softball team, I can say that these first days are overwhelming as you deal with a dueling sense of pride and humility—pride for being part of an elite group (only 2 percent of high school athletes get athletic scholarships) and humility as the fear of God is drilled into you over all the ways you can lose your athletic eligibility (and in turn your scholarship), which you've spent so much of your young life working to attain.

To help digest the newly added scrutiny to our lives, the athletic director at Texas left us with this rule of thumb: Doing the easy thing and the right thing are not always the same. Being a Longhorn means making the hard choices. It was a great and valuable lesson to receive as a student, but I often wonder if it should not also be taught to the governing board.

For many years, the NCAA has done the easy thing and ignored any real reform pertaining to student-athlete rights and compensation. This avoidance culminated with the historic ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) this March, which said that Northwestern football players were employees of the university and had the right to unionize.

Another recent antitrust lawsuit highlighting the work and earning limitations placed upon scholarship athletes called the NCAA an "unlawful cartel."

"As a result of these illegal restrictions, market forces have been shoved aside and substantial damages have been inflicted upon a host of college athletes whose services have yielded riches only for others," the court filing said. "This class action is necessary to end the NCAA's unlawful cartel, which is inconsistent with the most fundamental principles of antitrust law." 

The debate over student-athlete pay has reached critical mass because for years the NCAA has so vigorously denied student-athletes' right to earn money in any way.

I arrived at the University of Texas on a 95 percent athletic scholarship. I also received an outside academic scholarship to cover my remaining costs. But because the NCAA only allows student-athletes to receive what is called "full-cost tuition"—this includes tuition, room and board, and required books— and nothing more, I found myself in the position of having to return money to the foundation that had awarded it to me.

The NCAA said I had to forego the money I earned through my academics and scholarship—two principles the NCAA purports hold in high esteem. This money could have been spent on food, entertainment, and other personal expenses that all college students face. Instead, I was forced to return it solely because I was an NCAA athlete. (Disclosure: The foundation I received the grant from was nice enough to hold on to the money I returned so that I could apply it to my graduate school costs).

The "full-ride" was not enough to cover my costs, but the NCAA basically said, 'too bad.'  Were other students on campus similarly banned or capped from receiving scholarship money they won or were eligible to receive?  The short answer is no. 

The NCAA also has a number of rules governing outside employment and internships for athletes that the general student body doesn't face. The NCAA prohibits student-athletes from working while their sports are in season.  Athletes are allowed to work in the summer, but must get permission from the school and the NCAA first. Then both the student-athlete and their employer must regularly fill out paper work to verify that the student-athlete is in fact completing the work. It's a minor annoyance for the employers who hire athletes, but the NCAA believes the rule makes sure athletes aren't being paid more than what it thinks someone else might receive or benefiting from their status, which is a running NCAA theme — the athlete shouldn't benefit from being an athlete.

Perhaps sensing the oncoming legal challenges to its rules, the NCAA slightly amended its bylaws in 2007 to allow student-athletes to work during their off-season semester. Income for the semester is capped at a range of $1,200 to $2,500—which amounts to about a 20-hour workweek over the semester at $8.25 an hour. 

What if my market value is worth more than that? Again, the NCAA says, 'too bad.' The NCAA wants student-athletes to strive for greatness on the field but caps their earning potential to near the federal minimum wage when they seek employment off the field.

Fee-for-lessons and sports camps would be another great way for student-athletes to earn extra income. They could instruct individuals in the sports they are experts in, and on a timeframe that is convenient for their busy schedules. The NCAA actually allows for this, but there is a major caveat: bylaw 12.4.2.1(f) states that the student-athlete cannot "use his or her name, picture or appearance to promote or advertise the availability of fee-for-lesson services."  

It is difficult to build a client base for tennis or softball lessons if you are forbidden from advertising or even telling anyone about your services. Violate these NCAA rules and, again, you could lose your athletic eligibility and/or scholarship.

To reach the level of an elite NCAA athlete often requires spending most of your formative years in practice and competition to master your sport. When you spend that much time doing anything, it becomes a major part of your identity—a central part of who you are. And when you finally reach the level where you can reap the rewards of your labor, the NCAA orders you to pretend that being an athlete had nothing to do with it. That is wrong.

Some defenders of the NCAA argue that athletes should be happy with what they get from the schools. The athletes get their scholarships. The colleges and NCAA get their athletes. They assert it's a voluntary contract that student-athletes willingly enter into and that's all that matters. But that's a naïve perspective that ignores the hundreds of pages of rules and regulations the NCAA has implemented to restrict student-athletes' choices and freedoms. 

It also disregards the blatant ways that the NCAA and professional sports leagues work to limit employment opportunities for the very best young athletes. 

For example, the National Basketball Association (NBA) limits the earning potential of the best young basketball players in the world by prohibiting them from entering the league out of high school, thus pushing them into the NCAA. After watching a number of the best high school basketball players, including Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, and Dwight Howard, skip college, and thus the NCAA tournament, the NBA began requiring players to be 19-years-old before they were eligible to enter the league, producing a system where the best players head off to the NCAA for at least one season of college basketball.

The NBA and NCAA are protecting their self-interests and maximizing profits, which they're free to do. But let's not pretend it is a free market for college athletes, who are not free to profit off their own names or faces. As I learned the hard way, athletes can't even get well-paying off-season jobs or earn additional scholarships to pick up the bills.  

ESPN's Jay Bilas, who played college basketball at Duke, wrote in The New York Times: "The N.C.A.A. states clearly that athletes are to be like any other student. Yet the association involves the athlete in such a heavily commercialized, multibillion dollar endeavor, that it ends up restricting the athlete from any college benefit beyond a scholarship. No other person within a university community is so restricted. Amateurism provides no benefit to the athlete, neither enhancing his education nor making him a better person. The Olympics began taking amateurism out of its charter in the 1970s, yet the N.C.A.A. holds onto it as a cherished ideal. Money is not the problem in college sports. The problem is that the athlete is restricted from making any."

The numerous legal challenges the NCAA faces today are borne out of bad policy to be sure, but underneath these lawsuits lay its fundamentally flawed treatment and vision of the student-athlete. 

The NCAA has spent decades doing the easy thing, using its power to inconsistently impose and enforce outmoded and overly complex eligibility rules upon student-athletes, who have lost their athletic eligibility for rapping and have been punished for washing their cars with university water available to other students. 

The NLRB ruling and growing number of other major lawsuits may finally force the NCAA to do what we as student-athletes learn on day one: make the hard choices.