Elite College Athletes Make Money For Everyone But Themselves. That Needs To Change.

Nov 4, 2019

Let’s pretend for a second that you’re Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. It’s a nice fantasy. You are a 6-5 NFL prototype who looks like a surfer and throws like Zeus. You led the Tigers to a national title last year as a freshman, and your team is undefeated again this season. Clemson has never lost with you at quarterback.

Every home Saturday, 82,000 fans come to see you lead the team. You help Clemson bring in what Forbes estimates as $77 million a year in football revenues, and a profit of something like $27 million a year. Your coach, Dabo Swinney, just signed a 10-year deal for $92 million. With a couple of clicks online you can buy your own jersey for 80 bucks. You are a big fish in a river of cash. And how much of it do you get to put in your pocket?

Not a dime.

That violates every rule of common sense. But it’s the way college sports has always operated. Thankfully, that might be about to change.

The NCAA, spurred to action by a new California law, announced last week that it would start moving toward updating its rules to allow college athletes to profit from their name, image or likeness.

You should know that the NCAA has fought this sort of thing for decades, and so it’s not at all clear that whatever plan they come up will help athletes all that much. But it’s a step in the only right direction, which is to pay the people who do the work that makes money for everybody else.

Let me deal with a few of the standard objections. Objection One: Players get compensated for their work through scholarships. That’s true, and those scholarships do have value, but at the end of the day, a scholarship won’t buy a pair of jeans or a tank of gas.

Objection Two: There’s no way to figure out who should get paid what. Sure there is. It’s called the free market. Some players are going to make a lot more than others. Athletes in some sports won’t make anything. That’s for the fans who buy tickets and jerseys to decide.

Objection Three: Paying players destroys the amateur ideal of college sports. You might want to sit down when I tell you this … but big-time college sports hasn’t lived up to the amateur ideal for a long time. The top players who want to get paid do get paid – it’s just under the table. All players risk their bodies and future careers in a system where everybody else gets paid, down to the kids selling Cokes in the stands.

So let’s pretend you’re Trevor Lawrence again. Because of some other outdated rules, you won’t even be eligible for the NFL draft until after your junior year. The moment you turn pro you’ll be a millionaire. But you have to get there first. You have to dodge linebackers for another season and a half and pray your knees hold up until you have a chance to cash in.

In the meantime, Clemson will rake in millions of dollars on your back for nothing more than the price of a scholarship.

That’s a great deal for them. Does it sound like a fair deal to you?

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.