The Debate: Compensating the Student Athlete

Energy in the room was infectious as the U.S. Senate committee members and invited witnesses debated on the compensating of college athletes in a full hearing on September 16, 2020.

The hearing was led by chairman senator Alexander who was the first to give his testimony on the subject at hand. At the beginning of his testimony he immediately referred to his career as a track athlete at Vanderbilt University, where he first experienced being an intercollegiate student athlete. 

Alexander went on to emphasize the belief of the Night Commission of 1989, which he was a part of.

“Despite the problems surrounding intercollegiate athletics then, the Night Commission still endorsed keeping the student athlete tradition.” Alexander said.

Alexander, further emphasized his stance on the matter with more words from the commission, which he hoped would guide how congress deals with the new issue that threatens the concept of the student athlete. 

“We reject the argument that the only realistic solution to the problem is to drop the student athlete concept, put athletes on the payroll and reduce or eliminate their responsibilities as students.” Alexander read.

This position was echoed by other members of the hearing. Certain witnesses and senators believed paying athletes would somehow jeopardize the student part of the well known term “student athlete”. The collegiate model was acknowledged as the standard for athletes who enrolled in college, as these individuals would be considered students who also played sports.

Rebecca Blank, the chancellor at the University of Wisconsin had this to say on the matter.

“There should be an emphasis on students first, only a small percent of student athletes goes on to play pro, just about 3%.” Blank said.

Despite her support towards student athletes finding ways to generate income from name, image and likeness, Blank wanted to make her perspective clear.

“We must avoid pay for play, student athletes are not professional athletes nor university employees.” Blank said.

As a believer of the student first play second narrative, Blank went on to give her thoughts on what legislation should prioritize.

“Any legislation should improve the situation for students, not make it worse.” Blank said.

As the hearing continued it became evident the distinction between student and athlete caused major concern for those who were not in favor of compensation. Moreover, the opposers believed separating the two entities would not be in the best interest for the collegiate model.

Karen Dennis, the director of track and field at Ohio State University agreed and wanted to make the members of the hearing aware of why.

“Paying players would have negative consequences on college sports and the student athlete as student athletes would prioritize athletic performance to the detriment of their academics and athletics.” Dennis said.

The senators and witnesses who were in favor of student athlete compensation were strong believers of rewarding student athletes for the revenue that they are efficiently and increasingly responsible for.

Senator Murphy was the one who urged chairman Alexander and the rest of the senate to orchestrate this hearing as he felt the topic needed to be discussed. Murphy mentioned how he and other senate members are supporters of the free market. Moreover,  because of the impact of college athletes there should be no debating compensation for their work.

“For all those of this body who believe in the free market, I don’t know why we decide to keep it from athletes who are producing an incredibly increasingly valuable service.” Murphy said.

Following these words, Murphy provided context on why refusing to compensate college athletes isn’t fair and just simply doesn’t make sense under the free market model. 

“To me it’s pretty rich how a coach who is making 5 million dollars a year tells his athletes that they should be ok with simply the cost of tuition.” Murphy said.

Senator Murray acknowledged how the NCAA has grown from a 5 million dollar company to a 15 billion dollar sports company. This increase in the NCAA’s worth stems mostly from the efficiency and production of the college athletes on the playing field. Furthermore, for athletes to receive nothing for their role in the growing economies of their institutions was unjust for Murray. 

“Despite the fact college athletes bring in millions of dollars for college each year and stimulate local economies across the country they are prohibited from receiving a penny in compensation.” Murray said.

Based on personal interaction with student athletes from her hometown state of Washington, Murray felt she had a sufficient understanding of the struggles they go through on a daily basis. Also, she shed light on the inequity and abuse that student athletes especially those of color continue to face.

Through conversation with an all star black college athlete from Washington, Murray was shocked by what she heard. This college athlete had to steal food from grocery stores because he was not allowed to work and didn’t have enough money for food. 

“College athletes struggle to manage grueling daily schedules filled with workouts, practices, games and academics while also facing food and economic insecurities.” Murray said.

Remogi Huma, the director of the National College Players Association (NCPA), provided a unique perspective. Huma was the only member of the hearing who has a direct connection with NCAA athletes world wide. He was a collegiate athlete at the University of UCLA in 2001, where he first founded the NCPA. Since then, Huma has become heavily aware of how the NCAA functions.

“The NCAA uses amateurism as cover to systematically strip generational wealth from predominantly black athletes from low income households to pay for lavish salaries from coaches, AD’s, commissioners and NCAA administrators.” Huma said.

Some of the hearing members felt that paying athletes would basically wipe out the need for non revenue sports. 

Huma pointed out how the NCAA has nearly 34 million dollars in excess money which could easily be used equally to compensate college athletes. Also, he believed this would save non revenue generating sports and abide by the rules of title IX, which is a huge concern amongst opposers.

“It’s a very simple model and all it would take is for colleges to curb excess expenditures on extra coaches, enormous salaries and lavish facilities.” Huma said.

As the hearing concluded a decision was not reached however, more attention was brought to the topic by important members of society. Time will tell what happens next and how legislators handle this issue.

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