Stop me if you have heard this before: amateur athletes are receiving benefits and the NCAA is not happy about it. In a tale that is as old as any, the NCAA has found several high-profile college basketball programs guilty of fraudulent activity with recruiting. The big difference in this scandal is that it is the FBI, not just the NCAA, who are carrying out the heaviest sentence. The most notable program that has come out thus far is the University of Louisville, who are no stranger to bad publicity themselves, having recently dealt with a prostitution scandal. Unlike past recruiting violations that involved things like briefcases full of cash and the purchase of material gifts, this debacle was much more layered. Representatives of the different schools were making promises to players that they would receive endorsement deals once they completed their college careers. This took what used to be $25,000 violations and pushed them closer to $250,000 transactions. Regardless of the dollar amount, the fact remains that pretending like college football and college basketball are just like any other amateur athletic league is nonsensical.
The NCAA has put off the idea of paying its athletes by hiding behind the guise of amateur athletics. That model became outdated when they signed wildly lucrative contracts with network television stations and turned college sports into a cash cow. While the universities and NCAA turned a massive profit, the athletes were only allotted the money from their scholarships. High-profile college athletes have become celebrities in social media, often just as recognizable in their local markets as any professional athlete. While they have all the pressure and expectation of their professional counterparts, they are not legally able to reap the benefit of their fame. They cannot even accept a free meal from a local restaurant without it being an NCAA violation.
Those who oppose the paying of college athletes will counter with the point to the fact that many of these players are on full scholarship and that that should be compensation enough. I understand their position, college tuition is immensely expensive and the investment the university makes in these athletes is not insignificant. What rubs me the wrong way is that those players cannot sign an autograph for money or profit off their on-field success, but the university can sell their jersey in the bookstore. They will hide behind the loophole that the jerseys do not have the players name on it, so technically it is not a direct replica of that particular player’s jersey, but that argument holds little water. I personally have a #25 red Wisconsin Badger jersey that hangs in my closet that I got when I was a freshman. With respect to Scott Nelson and Derrick Tindal, both of whom wear 25 for the Badgers now, that jersey will always be a Melvin Gordon jersey to me. Despite the fact that the university undoubtedly sold countless #25 jerseys during Gordon’s magical career at UW, he never saw a dime of that money while he was here.
For players like Gordon who go on to the NFL, missing out on extra money in college is not the end of the world. However, just because they go on to lucrative professional careers does not mean they should have their likenesses exploited during their “amateur” playing days. If these players are famous enough to have brands interested in using their images as a marketing campaign, why should they not be able to reap that benefit? In no other industry are you barred from receiving compensation because it might be viewed as an “unfair advantage” in comparison to your peers. The only thing that is unfair is that the NCAA continues to profit off of college athletes without giving them a reasonable slice of the pie.
I recognize that paying college athletes is a complicated issue given Title IX restrictions and amateurism status, but there has to be a solution that is better than the current model. This latest scandal is the tip of the iceberg as brands continue to search for the next Michael Jordan that they can hitch their wagon to and build a merchandise empire. If the NCAA wants to combat this kind of negative publicity, they have to be willing to at least begin the discussion of compensating players for the use of their likeness, at bare minimum.