The NCAA Needs Reform, but Paying Players Doesn't Cut It

The Connecticut Huskies celebrate winning the NCAA Men's Final Four Championship at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Apr. 7, 2014 Photograph by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The five richest athletic conferences in college sports now play by their own rules. No longer must they adhere to strict National Collegiate Athletic Association guidelines that limit how student athletes are paid. This is a big deal, quite possibly the beginning of the end for the NCAA. Giving the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Southeastern Conference, and the Pacific-12 more autonomy is a clear win for the superstar schools and athletes who generate the big money. And the NCAA surely needs reform, but blowing it up is a risk for the majority of student athletes, the ones who won’t go pro.

The NCAA has some serious flaws, but the concept of a student athlete is a good one. Yes, the colleges effectively operate as a minor-league system for football and basketball, but the alternative—a formal minor-league system—may not be better. In the National Basketball Association’s official minor league (the D-League), the maximum salary is $25,000. The average is just $17,300.

There’s no question a college degree is worth more than that, in both current dollars and future income. The current system spares players from choosing between college and a long shot at fame and riches. Even outside of basketball and football, many student athletes might not otherwise go to college, or they would join the already rapidly growing numbers of students with crippling debt. Education is a valuable backup plan.

The problem, as Paul Barrett has described in detail in Bloomberg Businessweek, is that many football and basketball players don’t get the education they deserve—which, in this case, amounts to a form of wage theft. Since education is so valuable to the majority of athletes, the ones who won’t have a professional athletic career, ensuring its access and improving its quality should be the top reform priority, not bigger salaries.

The reason critics of the NCAA often cite revenue and not profits is because all but seven universities (top football schools) lose money on their sports programs. Top athletes in elite programs do subsidize weaker athletes and smaller programs, but they are not getting such a bad deal. A scholarship is only part of their total compensation. The best get exposure and training that can pave the way for a lucrative professional career; everyone gets access to an alumni network that can ease the transition out of sports and into another career. The biggest concern is the more marginal athletes who don’t get the education they need to be successful when their playing days are over.

So far there’s no indication that the new regime will make education a bigger priority. The elite conferences are expected to offer small stipends, and possibly insurance from injury, and allow players to interact with agents and recruiters. There is no question that the previous incarnation of the NCAA, as embodied by its member institutions, hasn’t served many of its athletes. They paid in education that was often a sham. Are the richest conferences the best ones to change that?

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