In NCAA-as-crumbling-institution news, the National College Players Association in collaboration with Drexel University recently published a report pegging the value of an average college football player from 2011 through 2015 at $178,000 per year. (They also found that the average college basketball player deserves a $375,000 salary, but let’s stick to football, for the sake of clarity.) To put that $178,000 in context, there are 120 FBS colleges and universities, and each is allowed to have up to 85 scholarship athletes on their roster at a given time. That would mean, fair being fair, schools should be paying out about $1.8 billion annually to their players. If that sounds like a lot, consider that the top football programs in the country — Alabama, Texas, Oregon, et al. — pulled in between $30 and $75 million in profit last year.
The NCPA and Drexel came up with their number by consulting the NFL’s revenue sharing policy as determined by the latest collective bargaining agreement, which means they’re taking 48 percent of the profits generated by FBS schools and handing it over to the players. This is sound enough logic, but the NFL is obviously a much different animal than college football. The NFL has 32 reasonably equal teams and a salary cap, and franchises share profits with each other. No team in the NFL is 10 times better than any other, whereas I shudder to think what would happen if Auburn played their hearts out against UMass. I’m sure, in a world where colleges were forced to pay players fair market value, the top 25 or 50 schools would break off from the rest, because the Tigers would have no interest in subsidizing the Minutemen.
Regardless, $178,000 is a useful number. It’s a conversation-starter. I like to believe it’s clear to anyone not blinkered by manufactured notions of purity that college athletes are getting a raw deal by working for free, and fair salary estimates give us a rough idea about how much of a raw deal they’re getting.
One of the most irksome defenses of the current system — and I guarantee the NCAA will continue to use this as a stonewalling tactic — is that there’s simply a lot of stuff that needs to be figured out in order to get college athletes paid. That it’s annoying doesn’t make it untrue. Before we start compensating players, there might need to be a massive reconfiguration of college sports. By the time music stops, it’s entirely possible that $178,000 won’t be a useful number anymore.
But the amount of stuff left to do should deter no one. College football is currently raking in, according to the report’s count, about $1.8 billion they should be paying out to players. They can take some of that cash and hire expert lawyers and accountants to help them with the logistics of creating a new system. We’re not yet at the phase where the NCAA is ready to engage in debates about salary estimates; they’re still hiding behind the myth of amateurism, but once that has been fully debunked, you can bet they’ll start dismissing figures. Don’t be ridiculous! We could never afford to pay players such-and-such an average salary!
So don’t take $178,000 as a hard number, because it’s not meant to be one. It’s meant to illustrate a larger point: The NCAA could pay college football players a handsome sum of money, and they’re not doing it. This gives the players a figure to throw out there, so they’re not arguing their case in abstract terms. Not incidentally, the NCAA is going to try to keep this debate abstract for as long as possible. Reports like this one try to move the discussion into the realm of specifics. “A fair wage” is a concept, and $178,000 fixes a number to that concept, however unwieldy it might be. The players aren’t going to win this fight by asking for “a whole bunch of cash.” They need estimates to guide them, and that’s why reports like this one are important.