California’s new law allowing NCAA student-athletes to earn money from their names and images puts me in a tough position. On the one side is fairness, and on the other is swimming.
- Yesterday’s news coverage: CA Governor Signs Law Allowing College Athletes To Make Money
The one thing everyone agrees on is that the current student-athlete model in the NCAA is not sustainable. Even the NCAA admits it. Their statement yesterday said that “changes are needed,” even while criticizing the California bill designed to catalyze those changes.
First off, it’s worth clarifying again that this particular bill isn’t about schools paying college athletes – that’s a separate issue. The California bill doesn’t allow schools to pay athletes salaries or bonuses – it allows athletes to earn their own money from outside sources.
That’s an important distinction, because the issue with the current NCAA setup is that far from being paid, student-athletes are actually limited even more than non-athlete students in their ability to make money. NCAA student-athletes cannot use their status as athletes – or even their names, in many cases – to make money. The most egregious example has been the Iowa swimmers who started a T-Shirt business. In the NCAA’s eyes, the swimmers merely mentioning on their GoFundMe site that they’d met while swimming at the University of Iowa was running afoul of the sacrosanct concept of amateurism and could not be allowed to continue.
A story from my own experience: when I competed in college, I was a recruited walk-on as a freshman. Knowing I wasn’t fast enough to qualify for an athletic scholarship at the schools I wanted to compete for, I worked hard on applying for academic scholarship. One scholarship I earned was a Triple-A scholarship, given for achievement in academics, athletics and the arts. But all of my outside scholarships had to be run through NCAA compliance, and that scholarship was flagged. Because it took into account athletic achievements, if I accepted it, it would count against my school’s 9.9 NCAA-limited scholarships. I was forced to give up the scholarship.
The dream is achieving enough in the pool to earn financial help towards a college education. I wound up achieving just enough in the pool to actually lose money.
Things worked out in the end, as I ultimately earned athletic money later on in my career. But that’s certainly not the case for most collegiate athletes.
College costs are higher than they’ve ever been. Student debt is a painful reality for the vast majority of folks who have graduated college sometime in the past decade. The traditional formula has been work: find a job, use your skills to make money and use that money to pay for your education. A good writer might work as an English tutor. A bright business student might start a side business.
But a student-athlete with marketable skills is unable to use those skills to pay for their education. A Division I swimmer could pay down a good chunk of their college debt giving private swim lessons or running swim camps. Except that they can’t, because while they are in the NCAA, the NCAA owns their name, their student-athlete status, and their athletic skills. That’s not a just setup.
I had to wait until I had graduated to run charity swim camps raising money for a freshwater well in Central America, because using my skills to make money – even money for a good cause – would have destroyed my sacred amateurism.
Now, the swimming-specific cases are a small piece of this puzzle. More egregious is how current rules treat the athletes actually making money for their schools, their coaches, and the media. College football players are making truckloads of money for their coaches, the media who broadcast their games and cover them, and officials in both the NCAA and their own athletic departments. Meanwhile the athletes are making nothing – and are one injury away from simultaneously losing all potential NFL earnings and incurring lasting medical bills and health conditions for life.
Two Paths: What Are College Athletics?
Here’s the problem: we all understand that the current setup is unjust. When even the NCAA is implying in statements that change is needed, that’s as close to consensus as you’ll ever see. But the issue really comes down to what we ultimately see as the purpose of college athletics.
Philosophy #1: the educational model
On the surface, this is still the model the NCAA and universities claim to uphold. College athletics are part of the educational process. It’s the same way we treat sports at the high school level. Students learn through athletics – they learn valuable life skills, they develop the ability to work hard and see payoffs from hard work. They learn teamwork, they learn how to take coaching and criticism, they learn to manage multiple responsibilities.
In that model, the current setup is roughly fair, especially if the amateurism concept goes by the wayside. Revenue sports like football and basketball bring in money that athletic departments use to sponsor non-revenue sports. The educational model of sports would say that revenue sports aren’t more valuable than non-revenue sports, and if the entire athletic department can break even, that’s a healthy way to further the educational system.
But if we’re treating sports as part of the educational process, it needs to be consistent. Athletes are there to learn. Coaches are there to teach. No one is there to get rich. The NCAA talks out of both sides of its mouth when it extols the educational value of sports while making coaches and administrators rich on marketing and broadcasting deals. Holding strictly to the educational model means the money earned through college athletics should be going back to educational advancements – not to extravagant salaries, massive bonuses, or arms races of multi-million dollar luxury facilities.
Philosophy #2: the market model
That leads us to the way NCAA sports really work, for everyone but the athletes. College sports have become a big-money enterprise. Television, apparel, ticket sales – money flows, and there’s no way to stop it. Maybe it shouldn’t be stopped. If the general public cares enough about college athletics to put their wallets behind their fandom, why fight that?
That’s the idea of the market model. But the problem is obvious: the more jobs and livelihoods depend on the success of a college athletic program, the less the educational side the sport is going to matter. The educational aspect doesn’t make anyone money. No one, that is, except the athletes, who are increasingly having their own educational development pushed aside so they can bring in more and more money for everyone but themselves.
The NCAA is increasingly moving towards the market model. But if we accept this philosophy, we have to accept a few logical conclusions of it:
- If college sports are about the money they earn, then college sports that don’t earn money don’t have a place. This is the fear of many: that embracing the big-money side of college athletics will ultimately be the demise of college sports that cost more money than they make – chief among them, swimming & diving. But if we accept this philosophy, then maybe swimming & diving don’t actually belong at the college level unless they can find a way to bring value to athletic departments. It’s a bummer for the sport of swimming, but it’s also the fairest solution, financially speaking.
- If college sports are about the money they earn, then there is zero justification for the athletes to be denied their piece of the pie. Lifting amateurism restrictions is one way to do that – allowing athletes to use their own skills, their own names, their own statuses as student-athletes to make money.
That’s the personal issue I run into: which philosophy is best when one isn’t just and the other is the death of swimming?
The Next Problem
Not many people have issues with lifting the amateurism restrictions, per se. The real concern is enforcement. How do we determine when athletes are proactively making money for themselves, or when a school or booster club is using the newfound freedom to set athletes up with cushy payments or endorsement deals, skirting NCAA scholarship limits and destroying parity within the league?
There’s definitely a Pandora’s Box element to this. Lifting the amateurism restrictions seems like the fair path for athletes. But it creates a very tricky situation for the NCAA in ensuring a level playing field across universities. Money would become an even bigger driver of athletic success.
If the California law were eventually extended across the country, the first thing smart college coaches would be doing is setting up swim clinics for their athletes with local clubs. The club pays a fee to the athlete, who spends a few hours coaching the club swimmers. The coach gets to tout those money-making opportunities to recruits, effectively promising money outside of the NCAA’s scholarship limits. That’s not even mentioning booster clubs who could effectively “buy” autographs or something similarly low-effort from athletes, raising money to pay those athletes what would amount to endowed scholarships above and beyond NCAA limits.
Now, this is all under the assumption that egregious violations like that couldn’t be caught. Maybe there are better ways of policing and regulating the money involved in college sports. There could be further rules in place, maybe limits on how much athletes could earn, or specific checks on booster clubs. But that’s absolutely central to the California model working without the NCAA effectively becoming a professional league with no enforceable salary cap.
Forcing the Issue
Ultimately, California’s law will force some level of change. It’s hard to see the NCAA banning all California schools, including a number of its more marketable programs. It’s hard to see other schools continuing to compete against California schools if the playing field isn’t level. The California law doesn’t take effect until 2023 – that strategically leaves a little more than three years for all parties to come to a conclusion.
That window could be shortening fast, though, especially with Florida’s new bill that would make similar changes by next July. A change is coming – it’s not clear yet how drastic, or how soon it’ll need to happen. After that, swimming will have to find its new fit in changing college sports landscape. And swimming fans may have to just hope that a fit exists at all.