The Numbers Game

If college athletes want to get paid, they're going to need to have some idea of what to ask for. Reports like the one released by the NCPA and Drexel are useful resources. (USA TODAY Sports)

If college athletes want to get paid, they're going to need to have some idea of what to ask for. Reports like the one released by the NCPA and Drexel are useful resources. (USA TODAY Sports)

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.

6 thoughts on “The Numbers Game

  1. Good information and start. Other considerations:
    1. Title 9 will come into play. Female athletes will deserve the same compensation.
    2. If schools have to pay all team members a stipend, schools may be forced to drop minor sports, both male and female, to avoid paying athletes in these sports as well as not being able to fund those sports.
    3. Law suits will abound to demand equality in compensation.
    4. In many aspects, it may jeopardize the tax exempt status of the schools as well as placing the players in a situation where they may be forced to pay taxes on their compensation plus making their scholarships taxable.
    5. Currently, I believe the ruling only applies to private institutions. Therefore, the best athletes will be inclined to only attend these schools to gain the money thereby creating an imbalance in competition ie: Michigan vs Michigan State, Ohio State vs private schools, etc.
    6. Practice and training conditions may be a better place to begin negotiations.
    7. Schools need to be held more accountable for follow-up medical care, proper use of financial gain, and educational responsibility to athletes.

    • What if athletes just made a living wage, and had to pay for school, insurance, and such on their own like any other employee? And the payout scheme should absolutely be capped to programs that make bank, because it’s pretty stupid to fight for a cut of the tennis team’s revenues over a scholarship, especially when your time invested is very minimal compared to top-tier CFB.

    • Dear Jim Sweeting,

      Title IX would NOT come into play. Consider LSU has opted out. Its sports programs are free of federal and State of Louisiana money. And thus, not under any obligations to Title IX harmony or equity rules. Arguably, the big schools will construct a new model any way. But in the big scheme of things, paid players, as employees, are not covered by Title IX, equal protection in re educational opportunities or benefits. Professors do not get equal pay across disciplines, much less gender. Of course within the same department, perhaps they should. Under that logic, any female football player would deserve the same pay structure – that the UNIONS extract from the employers.


      John Calvin Jones, PhD, JD
      (University of Iowa, College of Law, class of 2001)

  2. I’d say that for any school’s individual sports making over $5 million in revenue per year on a given program, the stipend/wages system would be in play. And I’d recommend a number that is $30,000 above the average total and complete cost to attend school for a year. That way, you don’t have to give scholarships, because it’s fully paid for in their salary, and they get a living wage on top of it. Let them manage their own money.

  3. I think the schools should pay the athletes 2k per month as a stipend while deferring any salary owed for payment when the athlete leaves at which time the salary can be taxed. The salary that is deferred should be based on time played, sports revenue generated and 50% of money earned off of their likeness while still in school. I think deferring the salary could avoid the scholarship becoming taxable. And using the sports revenue generated would account for the differences in what’s paid to female athletes and the lesser team sports.

  4. In addition using the money generated off of their likeness would allow for the higher profile players to be paid more.