Sports Illustrated’s “Pay for Play” Model in Response to Criticism of College Sports

Published on 23 December 2011 by in College Sports, NCAA


George Dohrmann of Sports Illustrated has launched an ambitious model to investigate the feasibility of paying college athletes. His results so far are posted on the SI site, prefaced admirably as follows: “The mission of our universities is to educate, but college sports is big business, and no one wants young athletes exploited.”

I applaud Dohrmann for this effort. It seems well motivated, and it shows that knowledgable people are thinking seriously at last about the fundamental structure of college sports.

Still, readers should pay attention to the basic design of Dohrmann’s model. Its starting point is the current athletic budget at leading universities, and its question is how much if anything those athletic departments can afford to pay their players. Not surprisingly, he concludes that “the vast majority of athletic departments do not generate enough profit to pay athletes.” Any revenue for such pay has been allocated elsewhere. Dohrmann’s model tracks the difficulty of re-allocation on a presumption that money to pay football and basketball players must come from the elimination of other teams.

This framework seems skewed to me. It purports to be an open-minded exploration while tacitly accepting too much of the status quo. “SI [Sports Illustrated] is not advocating paying college players,” Dohrmann states at the outset. “That’s a decision best left to college administrators.” Embedded there is a presumption that those administrators unilaterally can and should decide whether or not to pay their key talent. Why should they? What boss would give up discounted labor, especially when the resultant savings have been distributed among the bosses and coaches themselves?

I suggest a more basic starting point. Who should be involved in decisions about pay for college players? Does exclusion from the process exploit them inherently? If athletes are entitled to bargain for their own livelihood, like other citizens, then colleges must be free to pay them or not. A market would evolve. Salaries for coaches doubtless would decline. The overall college community, including the players, would make decisions about whether and how big-time sports are compatible with education. Players would cope straightforwardly with separate standards in two careers, academics and (often) commercialized sports.

Currently the system is rigged by a shaky cartel agreement through the NCAA. My survey of NCAA history, which appeared in The Atlantic, is now expanded and current for $3.99 in a ebook, “The Cartel,”. By confronting the hoax of amateurism, Sports Illustrated could re-build George Dohrmann’s worthy model on a sounder basis.

One Response to “Sports Illustrated’s “Pay for Play” Model in Response to Criticism of College Sports”

  1. Matt Mitten says:

    I strongly disagree that a play-for-pay model of intercollegiate athletics is appropriate, regardless of how it is established or implemented. In a recent law review article, my co-authors and I propose the following, which we believe is more consistent with the objectives of higher education:

    “Congress [should] provide the NCAA and its member institutions with broad or limited immunity from antitrust liability under section 1 of the Sherman Act, expressly conditioned upon the adoption and implementation of several targeted external reforms to ensure that twenty-first century intercollegiate athletics furthers legitimate higher education objectives, provides student-athletes with the full benefits of their bargain, and enhances the likelihood they will obtain a college education that maximizes their future career opportunities other than playing professional sports. Eliminating the threat of potential antitrust liability under section 1 of the Sherman Act would enable the NCAA and its member institutions to adopt internal reforms that effectively prevent intercollegiate athletics from crossing the line between a primarily educational endeavor to a commercial enterprise, enhance the academic integrity of intercollegiate athletics, promote more competitive balance in intercollegiate sports competition, require university athletic departments to operate with fiscal responsibility, and limit unbridled market competition for inputs such as coaches necessary to produce intercollegiate athletics.

    This proposed antitrust immunity would be conditioned upon certain requirements that the NCAA and its member institutions must satisfy to ensure that commercialized intercollegiate athletics are primarily an educational endeavor and that student-athletes in sports generating net revenues receive valuable educational benefits in exchange for their playing services. The following are some possible requirements that could be imposed as conditions of our proposed antitrust immunity:

    (1) At least a four-year athletic scholarship that covers the full annual cost of college attendance, which may be taken away only for failing to meet minimum academic requirements, engaging in misconduct, or voluntarily choosing not to continue playing a sport, and tuition funding for a fifth or sixth year of college education if necessary to complete a bachelor’s degree, provided the student-athlete is in good academic standing when the student’s intercollegiate athletics ability is exhausted. Providing these additional benefits likely would increase the college graduation rates of Division I FBS football and men’s basketball student-athletes, whose efforts generate most intercollegiate athletics revenues. According to 2009 NCAA Graduation Success Rate (GSR) data for Division I, 79% of all student-athletes who entered college in 2002 earned their degrees by the end of 2008 whereas the GSR for both Division I FBS football and men’s basketball was only 66%. The corresponding figures from Federal Graduation Rate (FGR) data compiled by the federal government–which does not include student-athletes who transfer out of a university in good standing or incoming transfer students who graduate–are a 64% graduation rate for all Division I student-athletes–two percentage points higher than the general student body–but only 55% for FBS football players and 51% for men’s basketball players. Because college graduates generally earn more income during their working career than those who have not earned their degree, it is very important for student-athletes who play football or basketball to graduate from college because of the very low likelihood they will earn a living playing these sports professionally.

    (2) Free medical care or health insurance for all sports-related injuries plus extension of the injured student-athlete’s scholarship for a period of time equal to the time the athlete is medically unable to attend class due to injury. This is an important benefit because the NCAA currently permits, but does not require, its member institutions to provide medical care or health insurance for sports-related injuries. Moreover, courts generally hold that student-athletes, including those participating in net revenue generating sports, are not “employees” entitled to recover worker’s compensation benefits for in-tercollegiate athletics-related injuries.

    (3) Mandatory remedial assistance and tutoring for entering student-athletes whose indexed academic credentials are below a certain percentile–twenty-fifth percentile, for example–for their university’s freshman class. The NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate system that holds universities accountable for their students-athletes’ collective academic performance and imposes penalties for deficiencies currently pro-vides a strong incentive to voluntarily provide these services, but mandating such assistance probably would do even more to enhance the academic performance of individual students-athletes most at risk of not succeeding academically.

    (4) The creation of a postgraduate scholarship program administered by the NCAA and funded by a designated percentage of the total net revenues generated by intercollegiate football and men’s basketball, and perhaps other sports, including the sales of merchandise incorporating aspects of student-athletes’ persona, such as team jerseys with numbers identifying individual players. Because the collective effort of all participating student-athletes, including those who are less prominent or talented, is necessary to produce these sports and contribute to an individual player’s commercial popularity, all of the athletes should have the opportunity to qualify for educational benefits funded by the commercial exploitation of publicity rights.”

    Matthew J. Mitten, James L. Musselman, and Bruce W. Burton, Targeted Reform of Commercialized Intercollegiate Athletics, 47 San Diego L. Rev. 779, 836-841 (2010)