People in traditional workplaces can sometimes feel like they’re owned by their employer. They have to follow their employer’s rules and structure their lives around their employer’s schedules and working hours. They rarely get to keep the fruit of their labors at work, aside from a largely fixed salary that doesn’t always accurately represent their value or contribution in the workplace. But at least they make a living and are free to use their skills, name, and image to do as they please in their free time. Well… unless they’re athletes and their workplace is one of the many NCAA member institutions scattered across the USA.

NCAA athletes are not allowed to accept any amount money from coaches, agents, corporations, local businesses, or really anyone who they’ve met since they started getting recruited by college coaches. They are not allowed to profit off their own image; Anthony Davis may not sell a t-shirt with his distinctive eyebrow on it while others do. They are not allowed to get paid to play their sport, either in the present or in the past. In fact, a player who briefly accepts a stipend for playing as a 16 year-old can be banned from ever competing in the NCAA. In a country that prides itself on free enterprise and individuality, college athletes must sign away their right to earn money from their talents if they wish to compete for their school while pursuing an education.

The men’s college basketball championship is the biggest source of income for the NCAA. If you watch it on TV, you’ll see propaganda commercials from the NCAA over and over that suggests their athletes are just ecstatic to have a chance to go to class and go on to become rocket scientists and brain surgeons. Other indoctrinating informative advertisements portray the NCAA as a benevolent, altruistic organization that funds and supports academic and athletic programs alike at institutions all over the country. The NCAA doesn’t miss an opportunity to insist that their athletes are amateurs and students above all and that their education and well-being is the NCAA’s top priority.

"Hold on, you mean other sports leagues actually let their players make money?"

That’s what they want you to think, but in reality the NCAA is full of hypocrisies and oppressive restrictions. “Amateur” athletes wear corporate logos for games, jerseys bearing players’ numbers are sold to their fans, and players’ images are used to promote televised events. The players themselves don’t – or should I say can’t – see one penny from all that profiteering. Lets be clear, college sports is a big business. College football programs in the six major conferences had over $1 billion in profit in 2010 – that’s profit not revenue. The NCAA’s recent deal for broadcast rights for the men’s basketball championship is worth $10.8 billion over 14 years.

The NCAA isn’t really that interested in the educations or well-being of their student-athletes, either. For example, athletic scholarships, by rule, last a maximum of one year and do not renew unless the school and coach decides to renew them. If a student-athlete underperforms or gets injured, or if there’s simply a coaching change and the new coach wants a different kind of player, that player’s scholarship can be dropped on a whim. If a player suffers an injury so severe that he will never be able to compete on a Division I level again, his scholarship will be given to a player with healthy joints. If a player wants to transfer to another school to pursue a degree not offered at their current school, as Todd O’Brien at St. Joseph’s did, his coach can veto his transfer and deny him athletic scholarship without so much as an explanation why.

"Sorry about your NBA career! We'll help carry you to the financial aid office... it looks like you'll need it now."

I won’t go into detail about how unenforceable these NCAA regulations about amateurism and scholasticism are, but you won’t have to look hard to find stories about players getting paid under the table by big programs, agents cultivating relationships with college and high school players, and loopholes used to keep otherwise failing players academically eligible. Corruption, greed, and cheating are no strangers to the current environment of college athletics in spite of what the rulebook says.

I believe there are good reasons why college athletes shouldn’t be paid and shouldn’t have professional contracts. Players negotiating contracts and transferring when they can get more money is not at all congruous with college life. I’m no expert on Title IX, but I think public institutions might be required to pay players in every sport if they pay anyone at all, which would not really be practical. Transitioning to such a system would require a huge overhaul of the college athletic system and, I believe, would distort much of what makes college sports so enjoyable and exciting. That’s not to say I’m against 18 and 19 year olds being able to play professionally (like they do in Europe or MLB minor leagues), I just don’t think it would work in anything like the college structure we’re used to.

However, I think there’s a much fairer and more reasonable compromise to the exploitation of college athletes; players should own their own image and should be allowed to profit off their skills when they’re not playing for their school. This is the same right that other college students and other employees have. If you go to school on an academic scholarship, you won’t get your scholarship revoked for working a job or internship or starting a business if it doesn’t affect your grades. If you work as a software developer, you’re not allowed to sell the code you write for your employer, but you’re free to use your skills to profit off of side projects in your free time. Only college athletes are required to sign over their right to free enterprise if they want to pursue their athletic aspirations.

Under this compromise, college basketball players would be allowed to accept payments from agents who are interested in representing them for their professional careers; sign endorsement deals and sell their name and image for use on jerseys, video games, and merchandise; and play their sport for money before they enroll in college or during the offseason. A system like this would allow many poor college athletes a chance to support themselves and their families while still in school and would bring some of the under-the-table dealings of the college game, like player-agent interactions, into the public domain. It would give players a chance to profit off of the huge business that they power, college sports. And it wouldn’t require colleges to pay a dime in salary to their athletes.

"I'm sorry, I just can't see any reason to change the status quo."

Of course, the NCAA wouldn’t want a system like this because it threatens their monopoly over young talent in the USA and could affect their bottom line. As it is now, if you want a jersey of your favorite college player, you get a jersey from his university with his number on it. If you want to see him compete, you have to buy a ticket to one of his college games. The system above would mean you could also buy an officially licensed jersey with that player’s name on it from a third party or get a ticket to see him play in an exhibition game or basketball camp in the offseason, with a cut of the proceeds going to the player himself. It’s competition, and the NCAA doesn’t want it.

I don’t think this system would fundamentally change or diminish college sports. Some might claim that it would incentivize athletes to go to big-market schools or affect the way the elite, profiting athletes get treated compared to teammates who make little or no money. I would argue that top athletes already flock to big-market schools and that the megastars and future first-round picks already get treated differently given that they are likely future millionaires. I’d also argue that this compromise would reduce the incentive for paying players under the table because it gives elite players a way to get money through legitimate channels. In fact, you might see more players staying in school instead and preserving their academic eligibility instead of going pro because they’d have a chance to earn income in college. It’s not uncommon currently for college basketball players to leave school early even when their chances of getting drafted in the NBA are slim; it’s simply the only way they can support themselves and their families.

Will the NCAA consider a change to their amateurism restrictions like the ones I’ve discussed here anytime soon? Not likely. Not while there’s no legitimate domestic competition for young football and basketball talent. Not while they continue to print money as fast as they can with the current structure. Not while casual fans continue to demonize college athletes found to accept money for playing their sport, but ignore those who get rich off those very same athletes. Maybe, the next time a player is retroactively declared ineligible due to amateurism issues and has to vacate his wins and individual awards, the entities that profited off of him while he was a student should have to “vacate” that money to charity.

Regrettably, 18-22 year olds will continue to be stripped of their capacity to earn a living in exchange for the right to compete at their sport and generate millions of dollars they will never see. They are all certainly athletes and technically students, but, whatever they are, they might as well be labeled “Property of the NCAA.”

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