The call for the NCAA to compensate its student-athletes is nothing new. Former athletes have waged lawsuit after lawsuit and critics have questioned how the NCAA has maintained its nonprofit status and defense of calling student-athletes “amateurs” while generating nearly $1 billion in annual revenue.
Last Wednesday, we covered former USC football player Lamar Dawson’s decision to sue the NCAA and the Pac-12 over wages. It is a narrower lawsuit than most, though, contending that revenue-generating programs such as football receive different treatment from their schools than non-revenue sports. Thus, rather than all athletes receiving pay, the suit contends that because athletes in profit-driving sports create revenue, they are deserving of compensation while those in non-revenue programs are not.
Our stance on this is two-fold. In general, we support compensation for college athletes beyond scholarships, but limiting that compensation to only athletes in revenue-generating sports while ignoring non-revenue programs creates complexities that do more harm than good.
For all the glitz, glamour and revenue that a football team receives — especially at USC — there are far more Division I sports that struggle to break even, and it is often up to the revenue generated from football to fund non-revenue sports such as lacrosse or rowing.
According to last year’s annual Equity in Athletics report, USC made nearly $106 million in revenue off all teams from 2014-2015, with football pulling in almost $46 million by itself. But the $15 million profit that football generated was the lone net positive among all sports. Take away football and basketball, and the University would have lost about $2 million on athletics.
Look at statistics across other institutions — public or private — and the numbers are similar, if not greater. In the same report, the University of Oregon recorded a $15 million loss in sports other than football and basketball; UCLA lost more than $17 million.
Frankly, the main reason some less popular sports have not been cut is because of the football revenue used to prop them up. If this money were to instead be spent on compensating football players, the attention and funds toward other sports would fall — and under the terms of Dawson’s lawsuit, athletes in, say, swimming or beach volleyball, wouldn’t even receive compensation because of their lack of comparative importance to the school.
Not only would it deplete the athletic department as a whole — as some of the football revenue goes toward renovating facilities and making improvements across the board — but i It also sends a message to the women’s cross country runner doing two-a-days or the men’s golf player out on the course from dawn ‘till dusk that they don’t matter as much simply because they don’t play football.
The counterargument that Mark Rifkin — one of the lawyers representing Dawson in the case — presented to the Daily Trojan earlier this week is that there is a “clear difference” between football and non-revenue generating sports such as track and field, and that’s fair. Football is far more prominent around campus than another other sport; USC fans are more likely to know the name of every member of the football team’s offensive line than the track and field team’s fastest runner. Football is essentially a business in the way it has sponsors and operates ticket sales, and the lawsuit contends that because a small amount of athletes produce a majority of revenue, they are entitled to special compensation.
It sounds rational, but there are better ways to reward these athletes without having it come at the expense of others. On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA, a case that argued the organization violated antitrust laws and should compensate athletes for using their name and likeness in commercial uses such as video games. Instead, the ruling of a federal appeals court last year that allows colleges to restrict compensation to scholarships and a few thousand dollars for the “cost of attendance” stands.
Having the highest court in the country hear this case was unlikely, but still a disappointment because O’Bannon argued for the most cogent method to fairly reward athletes: Allow them to have the rights to their own likeness, and, by extension, pursue sponsorships and endorsements and profit off their jersey sales and camps. This way, higher-profile athletes such as football players get the attention and compensation they deserve and lesser-known sports are not affected.
To the point the O’Bannon case makes, the notion that the NCAA must protect its athletes’ “amateurism” by restricting their ability to profit off themselves is ironic, considering that it relies on and promotes the hell out of these same athletes to generate a billion-dollar revenue for itself. Not only is this unfair, but it also results in tough decisions for young athletes.
Look at Katie Ledecky, the U.S. Olympic swimmer who brought home five gold medals from Rio and became an international superstar over the summer. She gave up millions of dollars in advertisements, sponsorships and the like to attend Stanford University, choosing an education over financial security for a lifetime. Sure, Ledecky could turn pro if she leaves school, but to put her through the choice of getting a college degree or profiting off her own accomplishments at the peak of her career benefits nobody but the NCAA, which now has the rights to her likeness and will surely market her name to sell merchandise and gear — of which Ledecky will receive none of the profit.
Ledecky’s situation ties in with our stance: Let her make money on her own accord, off her own success, without affecting funds that would otherwise be going toward improving the school’s athletic department as whole. Her choice financially benefits no one but the NCAA.
The “pay for play” issue is not going to go away soon. There will be more lawsuits, more editorials and more arguments raised, and the nuanced take we have on the issue shows its complexity. But ultimately, it’s unethical for the NCAA to claim “scholarships” and “amateurism” as its sole points of defense while reaping in money and subjecting its student-athletes to a schedule akin to that of an employee — on top of taking classes — and refusing to allow them to make a cent off of it.
Editor’s Note: A condensed version of this piece appeared in the Oct. 7 print issue of the Daily Trojan.