Widgets Magazine

Miller: Reforming the NCAA, Part III

This is the third and final installment of a multi-part column series in which The Daily’s Cameron Miller outlines 10 reforms the NCAA can pass in order to become more athlete-friendly and generally less restrictive.

8) Eliminate scholarship caps.

Since the 1970s, the NCAA has regulated the total amount of athletic scholarships its member institutions are able to provide per sport, partially to enhance competitive equity across the Association, and partially to “protect and promote revenue sports.”

Scholarship allotments per sport for the 2013-14 academic year can be viewed here. From the chart, it is obvious that the maximum number of allowable scholarships varies across sport and gender, and also depending on whether a sport is classified as “head-count” or “equivalency.”

A head-count sport must provide a full scholarship if it decides to award athletic-based aid to a player; the head-count sports are men’s/women’s basketball, football, women’s gymnastics, tennis and volleyball. An “equivalency” sport means that coaches may divvy up scholarships as they choose, such that Player A may receive a 50 percent scholarship, Player B 25 percent, and so on up to the maximum allowable number. Of course, schools are by no means required to meet the scholarship limit for a particular sport, but many do in order to stay competitive with their peers.

Let me first address the NCAA’s contention that scholarship limits prevent the “stockpiling” of talent and thus enhance on-field competition, which is supposedly beneficial for both the athletes involved and the consumers of collegiate athletics.

In 2006, then-NCAA President Myles Brand said of scholarship limits: “[They] were established to end of the practice of some schools stockpiling scholarship student-athletes who would never get the chance to play, just to prevent another school from having access to them.”

If the goal of this policy was to in effect encourage a more or less equal distribution of talent throughout the NCAA’s member institutions, then it has failed spectacularly. Even with scholarship limits (which have been declining over years), the more financially endowed schools — those in the SEC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, etc. — have consistently fielded higher-quality teams than Ball State, Troy or Toledo (despite the fact that all three can offer the same number of scholarships as Indiana, Alabama and Ohio State).

The truth of the matter is that there is so little competitive balance within the NCAA now that it really cannot get much worse; the comparatively rich schools will almost always defeat their less-financially endowed peers regardless of whether the existing scholarship caps remain in place or not.

College athletics as we know it is already bifurcated into a class of haves and have-nots, and no amount of legislation preventing “stockpiling” will undue that. Furthermore, the reason teams want to stockpile talent is because the NCAA’s cap on pay has made them too cheap. If pay for college athletes rose to market levels, acquiring 10 starting-caliber players in basketball (like Kentucky did this past season) would be far more expensive, and other teams could have and likely would have outbid Kentucky for players 6-10.

By making athletes affordable for all, you cause the team that values a particular player to want to acquire that player more than they would in equilibrium. This alters the economic system to encourage hoarding, not to prevent it. Thus, it is evident that the NCAA’s rules regarding how many athletic scholarships institutions may award per year has not enhanced competitive equity since their inception nearly four decades ago, and that such policies seemingly promote the practices they seek to curtail.

Absent these scholarship caps, many of the NCAA’s member institutions, particularly those in Division I’s Power 5 conferences, would offer more than they currently do. This is evidenced by the fact that when scholarship caps were comparatively higher, as they were before the NCAA voted to reduce the total amount of athletic aid its members could award in 1991, schools provided scholarships up to the allowable cap.

When’s men’s basketball coaches could offer 15 scholarships (instead of the 13 they can offer today), they did. And when football programs could offer as many scholarships as they wanted, they did; when they could offer 105 scholarships, they did; when they could offer 95, they did. The point here is that if given the opportunity to provide more athletic scholarships than they are currently able to, most (if not all) of the NCAA’s member institutions would do so immediately.

And if you think about it intuitively, why did the NCAA feel a need to set a limit in the first place? Because schools would otherwise offer as many scholarships as was financially feasible. So when the NCAA argues that absence of scholarship limits “would ‘likely lead many — if not most’ Division I schools to reduce the number of scholarships for players on football, men’s basketball and/or women’s basketball teams,” raise your collective eyebrows.

Ultimately, eliminating scholarship caps could and in many cases would a) open up more opportunities for varsity athletics participation than currently exist and b) ease the financial burden on athletes who do not enjoy the benefits of a full scholarship — or a scholarship at all.

9) Allow institutions to compensate athletes for the use of the names, images and likenesses, but without the $5,000 minimum cap as stipulated in the O’Bannon injunction.

Although the ultimate outcome of the O’Bannon litigation is anything but certain due to the NCAA’s appeal of the district court’s ruling, let us assume for the sake of argument that Judge Wilken’s original ruling remains intact.

If that were the case, the NCAA’s Division I member institutions would be allowed — but not required — to compensate their football and men’s basketball players for the use of their names, images and likenesses (NIL) on television broadcasts, in promotional materials and other media without penalty. More importantly, however, if schools were to pay their athletes in this manner, the NCAA and its member schools are prohibited from colluding with one another to “setting a cap of less than five thousand dollars (in 2014 dollars) for every year that the student-athlete remains academically eligible to compete.”

That is, if Stanford decided to pay Chasson Randle or Kevin Hogan for the use of their NILs, the lowest amount the NCAA could cap the yearly payment at would be $5,000. Although this may sound like a price floor (which would create market inefficiencies by inducing deadweight loss), it is technically not, because the injunction does not mandate that schools compensate their athletes for the use of their NIL.

If you understand nothing else about the impact of Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA, understand this: The ruling issued last August does not force colleges and universities to pay their athletes above and beyond the value of their scholarship; nothing in the injunction precludes Stanford from continuing to only compensate its players with a scholarship that covers room, board, tuition, fees and the cost of required textbooks.

Nevertheless, I believe the NCAA’s member institutions should compensate their athletes — particularly those in football and basketball — for their use of their names, images and likenesses, because it is abundantly clear that players’ (especially those in the revenue sports) NILs have monetary value. If the bundle of NIL rights had no value whatsoever, the NCAA would have never asked incoming athletes to “authorize the NCAA [or a third party acting on behalf of the NCAA (e.g., host institution, conference, local organizing committee)] to use your name or picture…” (see Part IV).

Until this past summer, when the NCAA removed the above section from its “Student-Athlete Statement,” its member schools would essentially appropriate their athletes’ NIL rights and sell these rights to various media organizations so that they could be used in television and radio broadcasts, as well as in archival footage and other highlight or hype-type videos. Incoming athletes were ineligible for collegiate athletics participation until they released these rights to their institution, a transaction for which they were uncompensated. That is the textbook definition of coercion, and the NCAA should not be in the business of strong-arming its athletes to give up their rights to their names, images and likenesses in order to play collegiate sports.

Thus, regardless of the outcome of the O’Bannon litigation, the NCAA must allow its member schools to compensate their athletes for the use of their NIL and must not set a cap (whether it be a floor or a ceiling) on these payments.

If Alabama wants to pay its football players $25,000 per year for the use of their NIL, let them; if Kentucky wants to pay its basketball players $50,000 per year for the use of their NIL, let them; and if Stanford doesn’t want to pay their athletes a cent for their NIL, or some amount less than $5,000, let them do that, too.

There is no doubt that college athletes deserve compensation when their names, images and likenesses flash on television screens across the world, but Judge Wilken, for all of her legal wisdom, was in no position to disallow schools from colluding to cap NIL payments below a certain monetary value. Her prohibition on collusion to set a cap should stand, but her stipulation that that cap be at least $5,000 should not (although, if the ruling stands, it cannot be ignored completely).

10) Ease amateurism restrictions to allow athletes to monetize their athletic skills and privately profit off those skills, their names, images and likenesses.

Before I discuss this proposal, which is easily the most important (and controversial) of the 10 I outline here, let us review a few of the key NCAA regulations concerning “amateurism.”

NCAA Bylaw 12.1.2(a) reads: “An individual loses amateur status and thus shall not be eligible for intercollegiate competition in a particular sport if the individual: Uses his or her athletics skill (directly or indirectly) for pay in any form in that sport.”

And Bylaw “After becoming a student-athlete, an individual shall not be eligible for participation in intercollegiate athletics if the individual: (a) accepts any remuneration for or permits the use of his or her name or picture to advertise, recommend or promote directly the sale or use of a commercial product or service of any kind; or (b) receives remuneration for endorsing a commercial product or service through the individual’s use of such product or service.”

Although there are many, many more rules restricting an athlete’s ability to gain financially from their sport, these two are perhaps the most wide-ranging (and onerous).

The idea of easing the NCAA’s amateurism regulations is inherently contentious because it is a direct attack the NCAA’s model of amateurism in which “students participate [in intercollegiate sports] as an avocation” because of the “physical, mental and social benefits to be derived.”

Indeed, the core tenet of the NCAA system as we know rests on the premise that college athletes are just like any other student (and should bear the same academic responsibilities) and that varsity athletic participation is akin to other co- and extra-curricular activities; the fact that they happen to play sports and, in the case of revenue sport athletes, generate large sums of money for their institutions, is swept aside.

In reality, however, collegiate athletics is, for all involved parties (athletes, coaches, administrators, etc.) not a simple hobby or minor occupation: It’s a business, and large (and ever-growing) one at that. And, ever since the NCAA began to crack down on the ability of collegiate athletes to earn money from their “avocation” in the late 1940s and ’50s, the players themselves have become the only actors in this economy unable to recognize their full market value.

Coaches can negotiate with their schools to secure multi-million dollar contracts, as can athletic directors and conference administrators. Hell, even the student managers can be paid! Referees, media members, event staff — nearly everyone connected with the business of college sports can seek out compensation, except for those actually performing the athletic services. You know, the services that generated nearly a billion dollars in 2014.

And those non-athlete college students that the NCAA claims are really no different from their own players? They are virtually unrestricted in their ability to monetize their particular skill set — whatever that skill set may be. As I have explained many times before, colleges and universities across America allow non-athlete students to profit off of/monetize their individual skill sets.

For instance, an English major who, while still in school, writes a bestselling novel is allowed to financially profit from the book’s sale. The computer science whiz who creates the next Facebook in his/her college dorm room isn’t restricted by their institution or some outside entity. And the artist who wants to sell his/her work is not prevented from doing so. Emma Watson didn’t have to end her involvement in the Harry Potter series or give back the money she earned when she matriculated to Brown University in 2009 — it was perfectly fine for her to be a “professional” actress and simultaneously be a college student.

My question is this: What makes one’s athletic skills any different than these others? Why do we allow non-athlete college students to financially capitalize on their marketable skills, yet we forbid athletes to do the same? I have yet to hear a legitimate answer to either of those two queries, and I happen to believe there is no justification for the NCAA’s restriction of its athletes’ ability to make money via their athletic prowess.

As such, change — radical, lasting change — is in order. The NCAA should relax its amateurism restrictions to allow athletes to monetize their athletic skills and privately profit off those skills, their names, images and likenesses, and do so immediately.

What would that look like in practice? I believe players should be allowed to, among other things, accept money for their autographs, enter into sponsorship agreements with apparel companies, promote products in commercials, be paid for their appearances at sports camps, and otherwise parlay their athletic skills into financial gain — just like any other college student is able to do.

They should be able to accept money from so-called “boosters” and secure “special” favors from the athletic department that are not available to their non-athlete peers. They’ve earned these privileges through their tireless work on the field, weight room, track, pool, court, etc.

I’m not asking colleges to pay their players tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars; all I’m asking is for college athletes to have the same opportunity to get fair market value for their skills — just like everyone else in the multi-billion-dollar business they operate in is able to do.

Contact Cameron Miller at cmiller6 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Cameron Miller

Cameron Miller is a sports desk editor for The Stanford Daily's Vol. 246 and is the men's and women's golf writer. He also writes on NCAA-related matters. Cameron is also a Stanford student-athlete, competing on the cross country and track and field teams. He is originally from Bakersfield, California, but spends most of his time away from the Farm on the state's Central Coast. Contact him at cmiller6@stanford.edu.