By: Ben Orland
The National Collegiate Athletic Association generates millions and millions of dollars on athletes each year through events like College Football bowl games and College Basketball’s March Madness. However, the latter is experiencing something it’s never seen before. High school prospects have begun to decommit from their intentions at top schools, have completely skipped the recruiting process, deciding to sign overseas, or have taken the G-League path. Why? Money.
The National Basketball Association is taking a new approach in its development, promising young high schoolers six-figure offers to skip college and its “one and done” rule, and instead play in the G-League, or its developmental program for athletes. Blue-chip prospects like Isaiah Todd and Jalen Green chose that route just over a month ago, providing some competition for the NCAA. Arguments to pay the athletes that attend these schools is a primary reason why the NBA decided to offer this type of development. The NCAA is attempting to change this narrative, having recently ruled in favor of letting players profit on their own name and likeness.
The question arises, how does the NCAA, a non-profit organization, generate millions of dollars each year? Because us Americans enjoy watching college athletics. I will admit, my favorite sport to watch is College Basketball. It is far more entertaining than watching the NBA, considering players have only four years to make as great an impact as possible, and ultimately achieve the near impossible goal of winning a National Championship. In the NBA, this is absent. There are eight playoff teams in each conference, and fans are quick to realize who the true contenders are by the time of the playoffs.
College Basketball is different. Each year, those thousands of fans watch March Madness (College Basketball’s playoffs), fill out brackets in an attempt to predict each matchup of 64 Division 1 athletic teams that have qualified for the tournament, achieve a perfect bracket, and a hell of a prize. A perfect bracket has never emerged. Upsets occur as lower seeded teams beat higher seeded teams every day of the tournament. You never know who is going to come out on top. The more viewers, the more revenue. The NCAA set up March Madness with a brilliant economic mindset. After all, viewers equal profit. The NCAA accumulates tons of money during those games.
The most prevalent argument surrounding the NCAA is the issue of paying athletes. The NCAA has held a longtime policy of not allowing payments for its athletes. And while it’s illegal, behind the scenes payment occurs all the time. Most high-ranked high school prospects have lists of schools that have offered them full scholarships. The term “bag man” is best described as someone who is hired by a college to secretly pay a blue-chip high school prospect in order to sway their decision when committing to a college. A series created by SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey highlighted the frequent occurrence of bag men in college football, especially within low-income states like Mississippi.
The truth is that if athletes were legally paid to play, problems would arise. Sports agents are constantly fired in professional sports, often due to their client’s opinion that they deserve more than their current earnings. These athletes are usually in their late 20’s when rookie contracts end, and new contracts need to be negotiated. Imagine trying to do this while in college; at the age of 18. Athletes usually only have four years of eligibility. No long-term contracts, such as what Mike Trout received (12 years, $426 Million). It simply wouldn’t work out. Young players could also become arrogant while negotiating if they do have agents in their teens. What if that agent wasn’t trustworthy?
Reggie Bush, arguably one of college football’s most historic running backs, recently made some notable comments regarding the NCAA and paying its players. “The more money you have, the more danger you’re in,” Bush said. “Because now you’re a freaking open target for a lot of people.” For Reggie Bush to say this is shocking. Bush, while attending the University of Southern California on a football scholarship, received All-American honors twice, and won the Heisman Trophy, the award for best collegiate athlete in the nation, in 2005. What if the recent NCAA ruling was in place when Bush was playing? He would have seen at least seven-figures if he was allowed to profit on his own name, and he knows this.
Athletes may face financial issues upon reaching the professional level. Byron Jones, a cornerback for the Miami Dolphins, is attempting to reverse this trend. Following the 2020 NFL draft in April, Jones posted a series of tweets that explained why young rookies should be smart with their money, as not doing so can have severe consequences. Bringing up examples of “40 to 50k in taxes, agent fees, union dues,” among others, the cornerback outlined the point of not spending lavishly, which young players are inclined to do. Imagine college athletes doing this? Being bankrupt before 20 is not unrealistic.
Furthermore, in 2012, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote an article entitled “Young Athletes, a Degree Matters.” Regarded as one of the greatest NBA players of our time, Abdul-Jabbar remained in college at UCLA for all four years. Abdul-Jabbar supported the idea that professional sports hold limited spaces for athletes, and that colleges instruct students on how to be successful in life and decide what they want to do.
The matter of revenue based on the likes of jersey sales are different. A percentage of the profit should be able to go towards the players, after all it is why the consumers buy the jerseys in the first place. The real issue are structured contracts and annual salaries.
Collegiate athletes do not choose to attend a school for a financial gain, they committed to a school that best fit their criteria for recognizing their potential as an athlete, help them on the path of achieving their dream (whether it be academically or athletically), and the most overlooked, the best fit for an education. Whether or not the “bag men” might occur, most athletes use their interviews and interactions with coaches, as well as campus tours to influence their commitment decision one way or the other.
The truth is, the NCAA is not a professional sports organization. These players are student-athletes. Not just athletes. They attend classes, and about half of these athletes stay in school for all four years, understanding that their chance of being good enough for the professionals is only one in a million. The other half? They bet on themselves. Kudos to them; it’s a massive risk. If it works out, they’re millionaires. If it doesn’t, they would be lost in life, without a future, and having not received a full education.
The NCAA is trying to bridge the gap as a collegiate athletic service for young athletes either wanting to play for fun, while gaining a degree, or taking a connecting flight on their way to stardom. Either way, players being paid is a complicated process, and would spell doom for not only the NCAA, but its athletes as well.