3 ways to fix NCAA amateurism

It's honestly not that complicated.

North Carolina’s Justin Jackson walks down to the interview room for a news conference for the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game Sunday, April 3, 2016, in Houston. CREDIT: ERIC GAY, AP
North Carolina’s Justin Jackson walks down to the interview room for a news conference for the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game Sunday, April 3, 2016, in Houston. CREDIT: ERIC GAY, AP

On Monday night, the last NCAA Division I college basketball game of the season will take place in Houston, as North Carolina faces off against Villanova for the national championship.

NRG Stadium will be filled with over 75,000 ticket-buying fans. Millions more will watch at home. Corporations will have a hold of nearly every part of the game, from ad sales on television to the sponsorship logos all over the arena.

March Madness is the biggest money-maker for the NCAA, generating nearly $1 billion in revenue each year. Currently, the NCAA is under an $11 billion, 14-year contract with CBS and Turner for the rights to air March Madness. In 2014, CBS and Turner earned $1.5 million for an average 30-second slot.

The cities that host the games get millions of dollars poured into their local economies. The coaches and conferences are all rich, and thanks to bonuses for success in the 2016 tournament, many are now much richer — the ACC alone will receive an extra $40 million.

Everyone makes a profit. Except, of course, for the players.

North Carolina’s Joel James signs autographs on April 1, 2016. CREDIT: Eric Gay, AP
North Carolina’s Joel James signs autographs on April 1, 2016. CREDIT: Eric Gay, AP

A lot has been written over the past few years on the NCAA’s shameful system of amateurism, and how it takes advantage of the athletes, many of whom are minorities from low-income backgrounds. And there have been incremental improvements, such as cost-of-attendance stipends, unlimited meals, and representative votes in the NCAA system and even in some conferences.


But when it comes down to actually dismantling amateurism once and for all, most real conversations fade quickly because, well, it’s complicated.

However, that’s no excuse for the status quo to remain the same. In fact, many economists have come up with solutions that will allow for the players who are actually putting their bodies on the line and playing in the games to be more fairly compensated, all while preserving the system of college athletics as a whole. Here are a few of those models:

Let The Free Market Reign

Most people can’t get behind the end of amateurism because of how hard it would be to come up with a uniform agreement between all 345 Division I schools. But economist Andy Schwartz, the co-author of the Sportsgeekonomics blog, has a straightforward solution to all of that: Just pay them, and the market will sort itself out.

Indeed, Schwartz has proposed three simplified NCAA by-laws that he believes will solve all of the corruption by making sure the athletes in college actually remain real college students yet are still able to earn a living:

Rule 1: Do not allow players on the team unless they are true students, eligible to be in school under the same rules that a non-athlete can attend under. If you have rules for enrollment at your school normally (like # of units per term, etc., minimum GPA), they must be followed for athletes.

Rule 2: You can play College Sports for four years, with the same sort of 5th/6th rules for medical issues/redshirting, etc.

Rule 3: (I’m not even sure you need Rule 3, but maybe…) If you’ve played your sports at the Major League level, you can’t play it at the college level. Minor Leagues, Junior Hockey, anything else, that’s fine b/c it’s at or below the college level and is training.

Schwartz has heard all of the theoretical objections to his plan — parity will end, Title IX will be ruined, scholarships are plenty — and has a written a paper, “Excuses, Not Reasons: 13 Myths About (Not) Paying College Athletes” that debunks each myth. Essentially, he concludes that most things in college sports will continue on as usual — including women’s sports and other men’s non-revenue sports — except now, athletes in the revenue-generating sports won’t be exploited.


Jay Bilas, an ESPN analyst, former Duke basketball player, and outspoken advocate for playing players, proposes a very similar model. He thinks that each player should be able to negotiate their own contract and profit from their own likeness, and, like Shwartz, he believes it won’t be the chaotic end-of-college-sports scenario that many envision.

It would be really orderly and easy. It wouldn’t be that hard. Players would sign contracts, they’d be bound by those contracts. They’d perform per the terms of the contracts, as would the school.

The complication of [a new system], those in charge are using it as a barrier of change. They’re saying, ‘It’s too complicated, we can’t figure it out.’ But boy, they can put together a college football playoff in two seconds and make a billion dollars.

While the schools with big endowments and lots of money lying around would have a huge advantage in a market like this, the truth is, they already do have a huge advantage. The best athletes go to a handful of top-tier schools, and that’s not going to change. Under this plan, those athletes will just get compensated more fairly for what they bring to the school.

The Olympic Model

Some cringe at the thought of a true free market because of its potential impact on non-revenue sports. To them, the Olympic model is much more palatable — that is, the athletes don’t get paid a salary directly from the school, but the are able to benefit from their fame and likeness like practically every other human being on the earth is.


If Nike wants to go ahead and sign a college athlete, they should be free to do that. If fans want to pay for an athlete’s autograph, the athlete should be allowed to accept that money. If agents and sponsors want to wine and dine players, have at it. If, say, a video game company wants to use that player’s image, then they’re free to — as long as they compensate the athlete. This eliminates so many of the scandals and headaches that surround college sports today, and allows the players to truly reap the rewards of their talents and accomplishments.

Patrick Hruby, contributing editor for Vice Sports, wrote about this model for The Atlantic:

The Olympics doesn’t pay participants. It simply allows them to get paid. There’s a difference. A difference college sports should welcome with open arms. Don’t make campus athletes university employees. But do let them be like[Michael] Phelps, appearing in commercials and on the cover of video games, profiting off their fame and image like everyone else in America. Including their coaches. Doing so won’t cost the current college sports industrial complex a penny of the billions it receives for men’s football and basketball broadcast rights; if anything, it will help grow and share the wealth without having to share too much of said wealth.

The Olympics held on tightly to the outdated notion of amateurism for years, until finally phasing out most of those restrictions in the 1970s. As Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports wrote, when this happened, “No one went broke. Everyone got richer.”

Syracuse plays North Carolina during the first half of the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game Saturday, April 2, 2016, in Houston. CREDIT: Morry Gash, AP
Syracuse plays North Carolina during the first half of the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game Saturday, April 2, 2016, in Houston. CREDIT: Morry Gash, AP

Salary Caps

Joe Nocera, a New York Times columnist and the author of Indentured: The Inside Story of Rebellion Against the NCAA, proposes a more controlled system, wherein teams would be granted salary caps just like the pros.

His model is focused on the Power 5 conferences, who, as the name suggests, hold most of the power in Division I sports already, so it wouldn’t alter the competitive balance that much.

Every Division I men’s basketball and football team would have a salary cap, just as the pros do — except the amounts would be vastly lower. In basketball, the cap would be $650,000. In football, it would be $3 million. It is ludicrous to argue that the Power 5 programs cannot afford this; the combined $3.65 million is barely half the $7 million that Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh made this season. (I would also drop the number of scholarships in college football to 60, which is closer to the size of an N.F.L. team, from 85 in the top tier.)

Second, I would impose a minimum salary: $25,000 per player in each sport. This would obviously not make the athletes rich, but it would give them enough to live like typical college students.

Nocera’s plan includes a strong union for the players, the National College Players Association, which already exists, though it functions now as merely an advocacy group and doesn’t have any power. The NCPA would vet agents and negotiate on behalf of athletes for the salary, minimum salary, and television rights. The money from television rights would establish a fund that would be distributed to players once they left school. The fund would also pay for lifetime health insurance for the football and men’s basketball players.

Like the other models, Nocera’s plan leaves a few questions unanswered and would certainly take some adjusting to, but it does provide a practical way forward for college athletics, one that helps eliminate some of the pervasive exploitation that characterizes the current system.

Colleges and universities are always going to say that there isn’t enough money to pay the players, but there seems to be money for ludicrous coaching salaries, extravagant training facilities, and teams of assistants that make professional programs jealous. Plus, that line — there’s not enough money — has remained the same through the generations, despite the fact that according to Forbes, March Madness tournament television rights have increased by 4,535 percent. If there wasn’t enough money before, it’s hard to believe that’s still the case.