Ulrich: Between the Lines

I run varsity cross country and track and field for the Big Green, and I’m going to look at sports from between the lines, giving an athlete’s perspective on major issues in college athletics. This week, I’m looking at the pay-for-play proposals that have come to the forefront of the national conversation.

Throwing money at a problem is not the same thing as finding the solution for it. Sports journalists and some athletes, however, are arguing for athlete compensation to better distribute the massive revenues that college athletics produces back to players. The NCAA earns $770 million for each March Madness and the top-15 highest-paid coaches make a combined $53.4 million per year.

Currently, money earned from attendance, merchandise, television rights and video games flows to just about anyone who does not break a sweat. But the millions of dollars that reporters and athletes claim is due to top performers creates a number of blatant inequality issues and contest the hard-earned fairness of NCAA competition promised by federal legislation like Title IX.

The pay-for-play debate gained new steam this month when Texas A&M University quarterback Johnny Manziel allegedly received money for autographs, a violation of NCAA amateurism, since athletes are not allowed compensation for their athletic skill.

While much less egregious than other recent cases, the rule of thumb regarding benefits is the same: “Would I get this benefit if I weren’t an athlete?”

Athletes are well-informed about these rules, but Manziel’s case struck a nerve. Athletic directors and coaches have been called on to justify their position against paying players in light of their own multi-million dollar salaries.

Pundits, while highlighting the few elite athletes in high-grossing sports who would benefit from monetary compensation, fail to discuss the inequalities of such a distribution scheme. Not only would there be wide discrepancies in compensation among teammates, there would be huge variations across teams. Team dynamics would change if a star player suddenly received thousands of dollars for doing the same thing most of his teammates do taking classes and prioritizing sleep over nights out but could throw a few yards further.

And while the cash would quickly flow into men’s sports like football and basketball, what about lower-grossing sports like soccer or track? Or women’s sports in general?

I’m hard-pressed to understand how this distribution scheme would positively affect amateur athletes’ experiences. Athletes already benefit from scholarships at many Division I schools outside the Ivy League, as well as professional coaching, medical and academic support staff. Add in the invaluable friendships formed on 10-hour bus rides and lessons learned in hard-fought final interval repeats, and the deal seems pretty sweet.

Some have argued that athletes should be compensated for the injury risk they run while competing for collegiate teams, which could prevent them from competing professionally, but isn’t that compensation already included in the subsidized cost of college education? Athletes run a risk of being injured while competing professionally as well, without the benefit of a degree. Finally, a change to a pay-for-play model would upend the equality promulgated in federal legislation like Title IX, which requires universities receiving federal money to provide equal funding for men’s and women’s sports teams, among other requirements. While the inequalities in salary for female athletes at the professional level are a product of market forces, such discrepancies should not pervade college sports.

At the collegiate level, athletes should compete first and foremost for their teammates and school, not to gain a year-end bonus. While wages in the labor market are drivers of efficiency, I think you would be hard-pressed to find a Division I athlete who would lift harder, run faster or score more touchdowns because he was receiving a check from the NCAA at the end of the season. D-I athletes push themselves and their teammates to the brink of their ability each practice and game that’s the nature of trying to be the best.

Collegiate athletes are competitors, but their sport is not their career. Keep the playing field level and let athletes in college focus on school and athletics, truly embodying the full student-athlete identity. For many elite female athletes in particular, this is their last chance to compete at such a high level.

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