Home Newsworthy NCAA Payments for Athletes? Check. Players With Balanced Lives? Not So Much.

Payments for Athletes? Check. Players With Balanced Lives? Not So Much.

By Brad Wolverton | Chronicle of Higher Ed | December 12, 2014

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This week, as the heavyweights of college sports gathered for a summit on intercollegiate athletics, campus leaders discussed the possibility of sharing even more money with athletes, including through group licensing deals for the use of players’ images and likenesses.

But worries over those payments have many people concerned about a contraction of sports at the highest levels of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. And some top officials say that the focus on money has left colleges struggling to help players—many of whom spend more than 40 hours a week on their sport—attain more balance in their lives.

Several leaders who spoke here this week at the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum, an annual event organized by the SportsBusiness Journal, urged colleges to pay less attention to how they spend their money and more time ensuring that players receive an adequate education.

“The dialogue ought to be about education, about opportunities, about fairness—less about ROI and year-over-year and all that,” Jim Delany, commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, said during a panel discussion on Wednesday.

In an interview with The Chronicle, he said colleges must focus on helping athletes pursue opportunities outside of athletics.

“It’s hard for me to conceive of the college experience in the 21st century that doesn’t have some elements of internships, that doesn’t have study abroad—some time away from sports,” he said.

During the playing season, NCAA rules stipulate that athletes may spend only four hours a day, or up to 20 hours a week, on organized sports activities. But Mr. Delany said that rule is often abused.

“The 20-hour rule is a misnomer. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in Division III or Division I, the amount of time that people are spending on sports is not 20 hours,” he said. “In fact, whatever’s going on in Division III is closer to what’s going on in Division I than it is to 20 hours.”

‘People Are Bewildered’

During a panel discussion on Wednesday, Taylor Kelly, a quarterback at Arizona State University, described participating in football activities from 5:30 a.m. until 11 or 12, then studying plays on his own at night. On Thursday, Mark Lewis, a senior NCAA official, said that some professional football and basketball players reported spending less time on their sport than they did in college.

Mr. Delany said he had made little progress in persuading his fellow athletics leaders to better regulate the athletics commitments of students.

“There are a lot of different sports, so it’s going to take some study,” he said. He would like to see athletics officials spend the next year discussing different ways to make that happen.

As the NCAA faces increasing threats to its amateurism model, Mr. Delany said, colleges have real incentives to ensure that athletes are students first, with lives outside of their sports.

This week, a half-dozen leaders here expressed some variation on that message.

“Our current model only works if we are committed to the education of athletes,” said Nathan O. Hatch, president of Wake Forest University and chair of the NCAA’s Division I Board of Directors.

During a panel on Wednesday, he and the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, president of Villanova University, discussed their worries about legal cases that could force colleges to make large new payments to players.

Last summer a federal judge ruled that big-time college football and basketball players could receive up to $5,000 per year in deferred compensation for the use of their names, images, and likenesses. The NCAA has appealed the ruling, which is set to go into effect in August 2015.

Such payments would not just affect football and basketball players, Mr. Hatch said. He believes that, if colleges choose to set aside money for athletes in those two sports, they will probably do so for all athletes.

Other legal threats, including a lawsuit challenging the NCAA’s scholarship limits, could lead to even greater payouts for players. The lawsuits have caused consternation among many leaders, Mr. Hatch said.

“In some ways, people are bewildered,” he said. “There’s no clear end if decisions like that go into effect.”

Mr. Hatch and several other leaders here said they worried that the proposed new benefits for players would lead to cutbacks in sports. “I don’t think there’s any other way to think about it,” Mr. Hatch said.

Appropriate Benefits

Institutions would be better served by thinking more expansively about the most appropriate benefits for players, said Jack Swarbrick, vice president and athletic director at the University of Notre Dame.

“The problem now is that we’re allowing the debate to be defined for us as an economic one and not a mission-driven one,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. “To me the issue isn’t what additional benefits can be provided. The issue is, what benefits are appropriate?

If colleges just focused on treating athletes like other students, Mr. Swarbrick said, the institutions could solve many of their problems in sports.

“This whole separation of the student-athlete from the student body, I think, is at the core of our problem,” he said. For example, he said, he wonders why college athletes face limits on the money they can earn from certain outside sources when other students don’t face such limits.

“You’ve got to ask yourself,” he said, “OK, why can the music student go downtown and play on Friday night and make whatever he wants, and that athlete is limited in that regard?”

For that matter, he said, there’s no reason why college athletes should not be able to receive a share of group licensing revenue from the commercial use of their images.

“Professional unions have been figuring this out for years—it’s not high math,” he said. The market could help determine the appropriate revenue for players.

“What will you buy if this jersey’s just a generic ‘14’ for the year?” Mr. Swarbrick said, referring to the market. “What’s it worth with a player’s number—or with his name on the back?”

Mr. Swarbrick said he wasn’t sure how many other leaders agreed with his position, which he said was constantly evolving.

He said he and his colleagues must begin thinking differently about how they solve problems.

“The only thing I think we can all agree on right now,” he said, “is that conventional thinking in this area is not going to get us where we need to be.”