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Here's A Fair Way To Pay College Athletes For Their Labor

Everything here is worth money, including the elephant suit.
Photo: Chris Graythen (Getty Images)

At the end of October, federal prosecutors succeeded in proving something that every college sports fan alive already knew. With the help of FBI wiretaps, defendants Jim Gatto, Merl Code, and Christian Dawkins were found guilty in federal court of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The convictions “expose an underground culture of illicit payments, deception and corruption in the world of college basketball,” U.S. Attorney Robert S. Khuzami said in a statement. “The defendants not only deceived universities into issuing scholarships under false pretenses, they deprived the universities of their economic rights and tarnished an ideal which makes college sports a beloved tradition by so many fans all over the world.”

You would have to be either shockingly naive or be U.S. Attorney Robert S. Khuzami to be surprised by any of this. It’s not just that this is nothing new—this very thing was happening before the NCAA existed and continued even after the NCAA invented the concept of amateurism and the student athlete in the 1950s, which limited compensation to scholarships and made possible the amateurism business as we know it now.


Contemporary cheating techniques are, it turns out, pretty much the same as the old cash-in-a-bag methods. The testimony of Brian Bowen, Sr. in the case was shocking not because he admitted to receiving cash in exchange for his son’s commitment to play at Louisville, but because, as Patrick Hruby wrote here last year, of how inexpensive that commitment was. Numerous schools allegedly made offers to Bowen for his son’s services—Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma State, Oregon, and Creighton were among those mentioned in this case—but Louisville, with an athletics program that reported $120 million in revenue last year, won the bidding at just $100,000. Many other schools, such as Kansas, Miami, North Carolina State, USC, DePaul, and LSU, were also mentioned at the trial in connection with other pay-to-play deals, and some reports claimed that as many as 50 basketball programs are involved in an ongoing FBI investigation. Other schools will be implicated and impacted; Brian Bowen Jr., for his part, is playing professionally in Australia and recently filed a lawsuit against Adidas and others alleging federal racketeering violations that cost him opportunities to develop his game.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a way that schools can both short-circuit the gray market in teenage athletes that play revenue-driving sports and fairly compensate athletes for their labor. It isn’t even all that complicated. It also has the added benefit of deflating some old and phony NCAA pieties.

One of the NCAA’s major arguments against allowing college athletes to be paid is that it would create an uneven playing field. Alabama would be able to devote more money to players than Boise State, which in turn could outspend Akron, and so on. The best talent would flow to the highest bidders. A handful of schools would dominate. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is how college sports already works—the richest programs consistently attract the top high school recruits and win more games. Amateurism doesn’t foster parity; it simply diverts money away from athletes and toward coaches, administrators, and luxury facilities.


Wherever you stand on this debate, one thing is inarguable: under current NCAA compensation rules, some athletes are getting a much better deal than others. How so? Well, schools are permitted to pay athletes with grant-in-aid scholarships, which are good for tuition and fees, room, board, and books, as well as small cost-of-attendance stipends. College athletes are compensated, as amateurism proponents like to point out, in the form of the full cost of attendance for their respective schools. But the total yearly value of those packages varies wildly from school to school.

That’s not fair. And it needs to change.

Take Minnesota, where I’m a regent. At my school, a full ride for an out-of-state athlete in 2017–18 was worth $37,455 per year. By contrast, a full ride at the most expensive school in the Big Ten, Northwestern, was worth $70,385.


For an out-of-state Minnesota athlete, that’s a difference of $32,930. For an in-state athlete, whose full ride has a lower listed value, it’s an even larger $45,116. That’s not fair for anyone—not for the athletes receiving less, and not for the schools forbidden from making up the difference.

As such, I believe that if the NCAA wants to continue mandating amateurism while asserting that competitive equity is at stake, then it should allow the total compensation received by athletes at any school within a conference to be equal to the highest-value full ride within the same conference. Better still, the NCAA could permit total allowable compensation for every athlete in the nation to equal that of whichever school is the most expensive in a given year. (Northwestern’s full ride was the most expensive among all Division I schools in 2017-2018.) Either way, it sets a benchmark that reflects the current economic realities of college and short-circuits both the overt bidding wars that the NCAA professes to fear and the secret ones that it pretends not to know about.


How much additional money are we talking about? Let’s go back to the Big Ten. If the NCAA adopted my proposed fairness measure, here’s the maximum extra value athletes at each school within the conference would be allowed to receive, per 2017–18's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System tuition information:


Do the math, and that’s an average of $45,721 in extra potential compensation for every non-Northwestern athlete in the Big Ten. Not bad!

Now, if the NCAA benchmarked nationwide allowable compensation to Northwestern, here’s how much extra value athletes at the 10 Power Five schools with the current lowest full ride amounts per the 2017–18 IPEDS would be able to receive:


The average amount this time is $51,356. Again, not bad. Having established the ceiling for allowable additional compensation, let’s ask the obvious next question: how should athletes receive their fairer value?

The easiest method would be via cash payments—just increase the size of the cost of living stipends that athletes already receive and have the NCAA and its member schools declare that hunky-dory under the ever-shifting definition of amateurism. If they find that objectionable, they could always equalize compensation in other ways. How about tuition for graduate education? Or, if education really is as important as the NCAA claims, by placing deferred compensation into trust funds that athletes could access following graduation or upon the completion of a minimum number of credit hours.


Schools already find lots of creative ways to stuff more cash into coaches’ pockets, from large bonuses for athlete academic performance to smaller ones for things like having their teams score first and hold halftime leads in football games. Surely the NCAA could be equally ingenious when it comes to spreading the wealth to athletes.


I am not expecting this to happen, to be clear. I expect college sports to react to my proposal the way it always does when asked to share more with the on-field labor:

  • Cry poor while invoking the sanctity of amateurism
  • Adapt and find the money to compete.

Here’s a good example of what I mean. Once upon a time—that is to say, all the way back in 2014—cost-of-living stipends were forbidden under NCAA rules. In response, athletes sued the association. Schools argued against change, claiming that amateurism would be destroyed by stipends, and besides, no one could possibly afford to pay players one dollar more.


In 2015, the NCAA’s Power Five conferences voted to allow stipends. Only one school, Boston College, voted against it—and today, the same school gives its athletes stipends worth more than $1,400. The money is inarguably there. In 2006, there were 42 FBS head coaches making at least $1 million; today, there are 44 FBS head coaches making at least $3 million. To pay for equalized full value of attendance, funds could be reallocated from other areas within athletic departments, with coaching salaries being the most obvious line item. Alternately, new money could be raised the old-fashioned way, from boosters and donors and commercial sponsors. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about college athletics, it’s that if there’s a will to pay for something, there’s a way.

And keep in mind: these payments would be completely voluntary. No school would be forced to give athletes a single additional cent. It would be up to each institution to decide how much they value winning, and how much they value fairness.


Speaking of which: I’ve traveled with Minnesota’s football team and experienced their rigid, rigorous schedule firsthand. I’ve learned about the athletes during this time: where they come from, their families, and the sacrifices they make to play their sport. They put in athletic workweeks that easily go beyond 40 hours during the season; they put their bodies and brains at risk and assume any and all long-term health costs for the injuries they sustain; they too often compromise getting the very best education they can because of their obligation to their teams. And they do all of this for our enjoyment—and, incidentally, to further a college sports entertainment industry that generates billions of dollars in revenue. That money makes everyone from athletic directors to strength coaches rich, but somehow always runs out before getting to the players that make it all happen.

They’re owed more than that. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t limit college athlete compensation at all. But in my experience, change within higher education is both hard and slow—the status quo tends to rule the day, at least until lawsuits or lawmakers intervene. Until then, though, change will have to come within the preexisting structure of NCAA amateurism. Equalizing the full value of school attendance is a good place to start.


Michael Hsu is a regent at the University of Minnesota. He retired from football after a neck injury suffered during his freshman year in high school, studied electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota, and also studied business at the University of Chicago.

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