Grinding Gears: The NCAA still does not get it

Eric He | Daily Trojan

In the midst of the Final Four last week, NCAA President Mark Emmert shared some strong takes about why college athletes should not be paid. Specifically, he argued that if they had to pay male athletes, they would also have to pay female athletes. And then he said that if they were to pay athletes in revenue sports — football and men’s basketball — that would require them to eliminate other sports to compensate.

First of all, regardless of which gender of athletes is being paid, the fundamental issue remains whether athletes should be paid at all. Let’s settle that argument before using Title IX as a shield.

And to Emmert’s second point, there are certainly ways to work around cutting sports to compensate athletes. The most popular solution is the Olympic model, where athletes are not paid to compete in the Olympics, but can be given prize money by their National Olympic Committees for medaling and — most importantly — receive money through sponsorships and advertisements.

That is a model the NCAA can easily adopt without sacrificing whatever “sanctity” it believes it holds. Emmert has argued that paying athletes would mean entering them into an employer-employee relationship with their schools. But letting athletes profit off themselves does not enter them into any kind of contract with the NCAA. It is a viable, middle-ground approach that allows athletes to make whatever the market dictates but does not wade into the issue of how much of a stipend each individual athlete or sport should receive.

This way, the star football player can sign a deal with Nike or Adidas for a significant sum of money, while the lesser-known rower or the wrestler can also find a sponsor for perhaps less money — but it’s still money, and it’s fair, according to the market. Everybody wins.

It makes so much sense — way too much sense for this institution to adopt.

Instead, Emmert and his cohort stick to their hard-lined, backwards facade of amateurism, while they do things like bringing in Kendrick Lamar to sing at halftime of the National Championship Game. If the NCAA wants to put on a show, it should reward rather than restrict the very athletes who make that show possible.

Case in point: Katie Ledecky, the five-time gold medal swimmer who won America’s heart in Rio. She’s been swimming at Stanford for the past two years, but, last week, decided to give up her college career after her sophomore season to turn professional and chase endorsements. Ledecky will remain enrolled in school and train at Stanford, but can no longer compete in the NCAA. She could not give up any more of her prime athletic years while not making a dime.

But that decision, in and of itself, is a shame. Ledecky should not have to choose between making money and competing in college. It’s a lose-lose situation: She has to leave her team and the NCAA is deprived of the best female swimmer on the planet.

Meanwhile, Ledecky is gearing up for the Tokyo Games in 2020 by signing with Wasserman, a powerhouse sports agency. That is allowed under the Olympic model, and it will undoubtedly get her paid her worth as a world-renowned athlete.

By plugging its ears to this practical solution, the NCAA is only hurting itself. Players are sitting out bowl games because they don’t want to get hurt in a meaningless game and not even get paid for it. More and more star players are encouraged to leave school early, because staying an extra year or two could mean sustaining a career-ending injury — and zero compensation. Last year’s NBA Draft saw the most “one-and-dones” ever picked in the first round. At USC, former quarterback and potential top pick Sam Darnold declared for the NFL Draft with two years of eligibility left in college, and one has to believe the potential for injury played a role in that decision.

As we enjoy March Madness and college football and everything else that comes with athletics at this level, it’s important to remember that players drive sports. Without Loyola-Chicago’s players, Sister Jean would not be famous. Players play the sports, they create the moments, and they make the memories; they should be paid as such.

Eric He is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Thursdays.