Pay for play

I feel very conflicted about the idea of paying college athletes.

I certainly understand the reasoning behind a new South Carolina law that allows college athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness (NIL).

Nevertheless, to paraphrase an old cliche, money corrupts and big money corrupts absolutely. Herein rests my concern about new regulations that can enrichen many young men and women formerly considered amateurs.

The trend toward allowing college athletes to benefit from their NIL took root in 2019 in California and gathered full steam when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that student-athletes can be paid.

“Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers fair market rate,” wrote Justice Brett Cavannagh.

Perhaps this is simply the next step in the evolution of college sports.

After all, the NCAA and elite schools like Alabama and Clemson have raked in big money from college sports for years. Million-dollar contracts for top performing coaches are the rule, not the exception.

Until the Supreme Court decision, student athletes didn’t get the tiniest slice of that revenue pie. In fact, even the smallest infraction of the NCAA rules resulted in swift, punitive action against the athletes and the schools they represented.

The Supreme Court decision pulls the rug from under the old way of doing things. The new rules obliterate the concept of amateur sports at the college level that I have always admired. For example, new NCAA regulations prevent schools from paying athletes directly, but schools can help them find lucrative endorsement deals.

Student-athletes can hire agents, lawyers and tax professionals to assist them with NIL contracts.

The NCAA does not have any rules that restrict boosters from paying athletes as long as the payments are not an inducement for recruiting purposes. (How this regulation can be policed defies interpretation.)

Student-athletes can now accept money from businesses in exchange for allowing the businesses to feature them in advertisements or products. Athletes can use their status to promote their own public appearances, to start their own sport camps and teach lessons, to sell memorabilia, to make paid speaking engagements and to launch their own businesses.

Only the top college stars are likely to make huge sums of money from the new arrangement. However, all college athletes will be able to receive items or free meals for promoting local businesses.

The nation’s high court says student athletes should be able to profit from their NIL and I certainly see some merit in that decision. Yet, there’s not even a concensus among states and schools about how to regulate the new for-profit model of college sports.

I fear the infusion of big money into college sports will eventually corrupt athletes. Will athletes play for school pride and love of the sport, or will they simply say, “Show me the money?”

If guess only time will tell.


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