Stop Normalizing Not Being Paid, Starting with College Athletes

            A few weeks ago I wrote about NIL opportunities for college athletes. NIL stands for “name, image, likeness,” and last year the NCAA created a policy allowing college athletes to profit from their NIL in the marketplace. That policy came out of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that held that the NCAA and colleges could not restrict athletes from earning income based upon their status as athletes.

            The expectation following that decision in the summer of 2021 was that a bonanza of opportunity would open for athletes, and that college students would begin to profit immensely in the marketplace as a result.

            Absent a few exceptions though, the market has not really developed. One of the exceptions involves Connecticut’s own Paige Bueckers who signed a deal with Gatorade last November that is reported to approach high-six or even seven figures. In addition she has inked deals for other corporate sponsorships that will likely make her one of the few collegiate NIL millionaires.

            Interestingly, Buekers’ deal also shows the dangers of NIL deals and why many corporate entities are wary of signing up collegians. A couple of weeks ago, Bueckers suffered a season-ending injury to her knee that will take her off of the sports pages and the front pages of media outlets for the next twelve months.

            When she is not scoring buckets for the Huskies, she is not as strong a spokesperson as when she is headlining an evening basketball lineup on ESPN. But under the current NIL rules, there is nothing that her sponsors can do about that. NIL sponsorship deals cannot be linked to performance under the current NIL rules.

            While that policy levels the playing field and helps maintain an element of “amateurism” in college sports, it has also acted to limit available opportunities for mid-level athletes. Companies will be unwilling to spend even thousands of dollars on deals if they cannot get out of them when performance fails to materialize.

            NIL has been a good first step, at least, in terms of removing the mystique of amateurism around the big-3 college sports of football and men’s and women’s basketball. The revenue wall has been breached. More should be expected to follow.

            There is no question that college sports remain a super valuable revenue generator in the marketplace. Just last week the Big Ten athletic conference announced that it was signing a new media rights deal with Fox, CBS, and NBC Sports in the range of one billion dollars.

            Guess how much of that one billion dollars will go directly to the athletes performing on the fields and courts of the Big Ten? If you guessed zero, you hit the jackpot, so to speak.

            You might wonder why any of us should care about this. After all, few of us will ever have to deal with the issues surrounding elite college athletics. We simply sit in the recliner to watch on cold afternoons and evenings.

            But from a broader perspective, the failure to pay performers who generate billions in revenue simply serves to normalize the everyday practices of employers who refuse to recognize and pay for the value that talented employees bring to the business. Without the performers on the fields in Columbus and Ann Arbor, there are no billion-dollar deals.

            The same is true at the local school or factory or restaurant. Normalizing an environment where talented workers are not paid fair value harms all of us. That is why we should care when college athletes don’t get paid.

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