When Duke basketball star Zion Williamson grabbed his knee and crashed to the floor during a game in the runup to the NCAA “March Madness” tournament, shredding his signature Nike shoe, many fans had two thoughts: 1. Is he OK? 2. Is an injury going to hurt his ability to turn pro and make money?
The second thought came because while he was wearing Nikes, and the shoe company paid a lot of money to Duke University for the right to outfit the players, Williamson was prohibited from taking any compensation for wearing the shoes — or for anything else.
NCAA regulations strictly prohibit remuneration for any activity by any student-athletes — including endorsements, appearances and advertisements — beyond scholarships, to retain their amateur status.
But the no-pay rule has become increasingly unpopular. Now lawmakers in a handful of states want to allow college athletes to be paid, if not directly in a salary, then by allowing compensation for the use of their image, likeness or name.
Some bills would allow the players to join a union and collectively bargain for remuneration. Others would allow them to qualify for worker’s compensation in the event of an injury. All are aimed at cutting the players in on a system that pays coaches millions and earns multimillions for the colleges and universities.
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Bills are under consideration in Duke’s home state of North Carolina, along with California, Washington state and Colorado. In Maryland, a bill had a committee hearing but was not voted on by the panel and died last month, at the end of this year’s session. The U.S. Congress also has legislation in the works that would allow compensation for student-athletes.
“There’s a little movement right now, because I think the people have been struck by the immorality of having college coaches earn multimillion dollar salaries off the backs and from the blood of young men, many of whom are mere teenagers, who are not being compensated anywhere near fairly,” said Kevin Blackistone, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a regular panelist on ESPN’s “Around the Horn” talk show.
The high salaries and high profits for the colleges come in the two revenue-producing sports, men’s football and basketball, particularly at the Division I level, which includes large schools.
“There have been stories about football players who haven’t been able to find enough to eat, football or basketball players finding themselves living a homeless life,” Blackistone said, “and the coaches and universities for whom they toil are raking in tens of millions of dollars. I think it finally struck a chord.”
Under NCAA rules, college athletes, no matter what division they play in or whether they have scholarships, are not allowed to take money for appearances or to be paid for advertisements that trade on their athletic skill. If they establish a business, they cannot use their athletic uniforms or connection to sports for the business.
They are not allowed to accept free stuff from college boosters, and their relationship to sports agents is tightly controlled by the NCAA and cannot involve payments to players or their families.
In recent years, the NCAA has loosened up on rules for athletes to permit them to have stipends that can pay for academic-related supplies, transportation and food not included in the college meal plan. Scholarships for some top athletes pay for tuition, fees, books, and room and board.
The NCAA is charged with protecting the integrity of sports on college campuses, and it views the restrictions on payments as a way to nip efforts by outsiders to unduly influence players.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Education that was compiled by USA Today, the 231 NCAA Division I schools with data available generated $9.15 billion in revenue during fiscal 2015. And coaches make millions.
Kentucky basketball’s John Calipari is the highest-paid college coach in the United States at $9.2 million a year, according to USA Today. In many states, public universities’ coaches are the highest-paid state employees. Calipari is also the top public earner in Kentucky: He is paid more than 60 times as much as the state’s governor, Matt Bevin, who makes about $149,000 a year.
According to ESPN, in 2017 the highest-paid state employees in 39 states coached either football (31 states) or men’s basketball (eight states).
For lawmakers responsible for state budgets, that disparity stands out in a huge way.
“Public universities, at the end of the day, should be looking out for the interest of their students, more than the interests of the NCAA,” said Maryland Del. Brooke Lierman, a Democrat from Baltimore who sponsored a bill that would have allowed the student-athletes to collectively bargain over scholarship terms, health insurance and pay for appearances.
She said in an interview that the death of Jordan McNair, a University of Maryland football player who collapsed from heat stroke at practice last summer and died, sparked her to act.
“State legislatures charter and have control over the public universities,” she said. “If schools themselves feel they can’t stand up to the NCAA, then legislatures have to do it.”
Appearing at a hearing in March in Annapolis on Lierman’s bill, the University of Maryland’s deputy athletic director, Colleen Sorem, noted “the rules of competition are set by the member universities of the NCAA and our student-athletes must be compliant to compete.” She also mentioned that UMD spends $15,000 for each athlete — above and beyond academic scholarships — on things like academic and psychological counseling and career development.
Lierman, who was a rower in Dartmouth’s NCAA Division I program, said the bill, which was subsequently watered down to call just for a commission to study the issue, did not even get a vote in committee. She plans to pursue the issue next year.
In Colorado, Republican state Sen. Owen Hill said he will sponsor a bill that would allow athletes to be paid for appearances and would not punish them for doing outside work or taking money for allowing their pictures to be used for sponsorships. Hill said in an interview he is trying to amend the state’s current consumer protection law to protect the athletes.
“When the NCAA tries to come in and enforce against them being paid, or taking sponsorships, or hiring an agent to represent them, I think it’s a violation of Colorado’s consumer protection act,” he said, adding that no one has tried to apply the wide-ranging act to athletes.
The NCAA did not respond to numerous attempts by Stateline to solicit comment for this story.
But Hill said he has heard from representatives of colleges and universities in his state, acting as surrogates for the NCAA, which opposes his bill.
“I was hoping the institutions would side with the students, and I think we will get there eventually,” he said. “If Colorado does do this, some other state is going to do this. The NCAA is a cartel, and they have ruined the system for student-athletes.”
Colorado universities told the Denver Post they would not comment on Hill’s legislation until they have seen the bill (he hasn’t formally introduced it, but it is circulating as a draft). But Craig Thompson, commissioner of the Mountain West Conference, and Tom Burnett, commissioner of the Southland Conference, penned an op-ed in which they argued against paying college athletes.
“College athletes are not employees. They are students. It’s that simple,” they wrote. “Put another way, about 98% of the college students who play football or basketball will go pro in something other than sports,” they said, echoing the NCAA’s in-house advertising phrasing on college sports broadcasts.
The two also noted the scholarships athletes get, which include room and board, and stipends for living expenses and emergency funds for things such as transportation home in cases of family emergency.
Republican Washington state Rep. Drew Stokesbary is sponsoring a bill that would allow student-athletes to have agents and to sign paid endorsement deals. At a hearing in January on the legislation, Washington State University spokesman Chris Mulluk said if Washington passes the bill, it would put his school in jeopardy with the NCAA.
“This bill would require the university to allow athletes to engage in activities that are in clear violation of NCAA bylaws,” Mulluk said at the hearing. “Repeated and widespread disregard of those bylaws as this bill dictates would leave the NCAA with little choice but to levy a succession of penalties, ultimately leading to the loss of NCAA and PAC-12 membership, that would ultimately leave our teams competing at lower levels or at a club level, if at all.”
Mulluk did not respond to several attempts to reach him for comment.
State-by-state action would be overtaken if a federal bill to allow student-athlete compensation were to be enacted, said U.S. Rep. Mark Walker. The North Carolina Republican uses free-market principles to underpin his legislation, which would amend the federal tax code so that colleges would lose their tax-free status unless they allow athletes to be compensated for use of their “name, image and likeness.”
Walker’s district includes Elon University and North Carolina A&T State University, and borders districts that include Duke, the University of North Carolina, N.C. State University and Wake Forest.
Walker, in a telephone interview, said it’s not fair that music students at a university, even those with scholarships, are not barred from playing outside gigs and getting paid for them, while college athletes can’t do paid appearances.
“It wouldn’t force them to be paid,” Walker said of athletes covered by his bill. “But if someone wants to pay them $50 for their autograph, the student-athletes can make that happen.”
He said some North Carolina student-athletes have not been able to go home for Christmas because of a lack of funds. Walker, who was a three-sport athlete at a small Christian college and who is the starting pitcher for the House Republicans’ baseball team, said allowing athletes to make a little money would encourage them to stay in school and not to leave for professional leagues.
But not all college athletes can cash in, only the ones who are drafted by leagues like the NBA, NFL and NHL, or WNBA, and the odds of being drafted are slight. Many Division I athletes do stay in school, because there are few professional opportunities for athletes in rowing, volleyball or track and field, just to name a few.
Walker also argued that if athletes had some money, they could take out insurance policies on themselves, to help protect them in case of injury.
A hearing in the House Ways and Means Committee on the bill has yet to be scheduled.
A poll conducted in March of a thousand registered voters nationwide by ScottRasmussen.com and HarrisX polling firms found that more than half (52%) of those surveyed thought that college athletes who play for major revenue-generating sports programs should be paid.
The survey, which has a margin of error of 3 percentage points, found 32% thought student-athletes should not be paid and 16% were not sure. When asked whether the athletes should be compensated if a school sells merchandise with a player’s name or picture on it, 64% said they should.
Death of a teammate
Ellis McKennie, an offensive lineman for the University of Maryland’s football team, said in an interview with Stateline that he thinks players deserve to be paid for their appearances and the use of their likeness.
He said people don’t understand the limits put on him: He can’t host a football camp for kids in the summer and get paid for it. “I can’t post my barber on Instagram and get a free haircut,” he said. “Other students can.”
McKennie, a graduate student in public policy, said the NCAA is being “selfish.” If non-athletes are on scholarship at a university, he said, “they aren’t having 100,000 people watch them take their final exam. It’s about how much money we make for the university.
Data from the U.S. Department of Education estimated the university’s 2016-17 sports revenue at $95 million. Maryland football coach Michael Locksley is paid $2.5 million and could make $775,000 more if his team hits certain bowl or playoff goals, the Baltimore Sun reported.
The NCAA spent $400,000 on lobbying politicians in the two-year election cycle of 2016-17, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks political fundraising and spending. By contrast, the NFL spent $1.6 million, while the PGA spent only $120,000.
Lobbying disclosure records for the U.S. Senate show the NCAA lobbied on issues relating to amateur status of college players and hired Washington lobbying firms to the tune of $640,000 in 2018.
McKennie, who testified at the hearing on the Maryland bill, said he got involved because he and his teammates undertook a fundraiser, partnering with Chipotle, that would have directed a third of the proceeds from one day’s receipts to a foundation in commemoration of his late teammate McNair.
The NCAA scotched the fundraiser because “not all the profits went to the foundation,” McKennie said, “some went to Chipotle.”
“It was the dumbest thing ever,” he said. “I posted a pretty mean tweet to the NCAA and got 80,000 likes and retweets.
“At the end of the day,” McKennie said, “we’re fighting a big, powerful institution.”