College athletes have always gotten away with a lot. That’s because, on each campus, star players are local, and sometimes national, celebrities. This paves the way to them skirting a lot of laws and rules that the rest of the student body must play by. Campus police often will not arrest them if they catch them drinking underage, or they may avoid facing charges for far violent crimes. But until recently, there was one cardinal rule that could not be violated without swift, severe punishment: the rule against financial compensation for athletes. For decades, the NCAA, the body in charge of college athletics, has upheld and enforced incredibly strict rules about player compensation. Part of their justification has always been to uphold the ideals of amateurism, which they insist fans demand, but that justification has always felt like circular reasoning.
Follow the Money
As college sports have grown more lucrative, and therefore more professional, the fact that college athletes have been unable to profit from their arduous work has grown increasingly fishy. For instance, take college football: the top college football coaches make close to 10 million USD per year! In most states, the college football coaches are the highest-paid government employees in almost every state (they coach at public universities). Almost all of these coaches are old, white men, even though 46% of football players in the Power Five Conferences are African-American. So, coaches are making millions and universities are making hundreds of millions based on the exploits of young men that come disproportionately from disadvantaged economic backgrounds. The optics are not good. As Justice Kavanaugh put it in a recent Supreme Court concurring opinion, “The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America”.
Things get even worse when you consider how gruelling, competitive, and dangerous some sports are. More and more studies are being published about the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is essentially brain damage that rears its ugly head eight to ten years after repeated mild brain injuries occur in an individual. Mild symptoms include confusion, dizziness, and headaches. Moderate symptoms include memory loss, instability, and impulsive behaviour. Serious symptoms include progressive dementia, movement disorders, speech impediments, and tremors. These symptoms have been documented as leading to deep depression and eventually suicide among athletes.
So, even if a player does not suffer a catastrophic injury to their arm, back, or leg—many do—there may very well be permanent, suicide-inducing brain damage. Considering only 1.2% of college-level players get drafted to the NFL, which is the only place they can make decent money playing football, you might start questioning how this unfair system survived for as long as it did.
Opening the Floodgates
Recently, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld a legal challenge to the NCAA’s rules against player compensation related to education. Some justices worried that they might be opening the floodgates to player compensation, but others argued that it did not matter because they were discussing only matters related to educational expenses. But shortly after the court published their decision, the NCAA suspended their rules restricting payments for sponsorship deals, online endorsements, and personal appearances. This very well might be the most important decision in the history of college athletics.
Within a few weeks of the rule change, University of Alabama Quarterback Bryce Young is set to make over one million dollars in endorsement deals. Because of the potential for compensation, there is now much more motivation for the top players to attend schools where they can get the most media attention, and therefore endorsement deals. For college football, that means that these top players will rush towards the SEC. The rich are going to get much, much richer.