Should top college athletes earn $800,000 a year? Some believe so

For Martin Jenkins and other members of the 2014 Clemson Tigers football team, it was a simple rallying cry, but others saw a financial opportunity. The three-word phrase – “We too deep” – began as an internal mantra, chanted by players in the locker room and on the sidelines, but it took on a life of its own when Jenkins transformed it into a song. He bought a camera off Craigslist and coaxed a handful of his teams to help him produce a music video.

“It was just something I did on a whim, but it ended up blowing up,” Jenkins, who was a four-year defensive back at Clemson and is now an insurance agent in Atlanta, told the Guardian.

The song became an anthem of sorts for the team and the video went viral (it currently has more than 6m views on YouTube). And in the football-obsessed college town, it didn’t take long for merchants to cash in on the phrase.

“I saw people with ‘We too deep’ shirts on and I asked them, ‘Hey, where’d you get that from?’ One person pointed me to a website. One person pointed me to a local t-shirt vendor,” Jenkins recalled. Initially, Jenkins was flattered. “I thought it was really cool,” he said. “I was like, ‘Wow, they’re selling something that I helped bring to the forefront.” Looking to get a piece of the action, Jenkins tried to sell his own line of shirts, but was quickly stymied by Clemson’s compliance officers, who told him that the sales would be a violation of NCAA rules, which prohibit college athletes from earning money from their playing careers. “That was one of the major inspirations for me to effect change,” Jenkins said. “It was just insane to me that it could be a rule for so long.”

For more than a century, the NCAA has served as the chief governing body of college sports in the United States. Comprised of three divisions, the organization regulates more than 1,000 institutions nationwide and has swelled into a multibillion dollar outfit, as media companies have paid ever-increasing sums for the broadcast rights to marquee competitions like the College Football Playoff and the NCAA basketball tournament (better known as March Madness). But players like Jenkins had long been denied their share of the spoils, due to the NCAA’s ban against paying student athletes.

In 2014, while still a junior at Clemson, Jenkins turned his newfound interest into advocacy, signing on as a plaintiff in what was described by ESPN as “the most direct challenge yet to the NCAA’s longstanding economic model.” The antitrust claim pushed for student athletes to be paid according to their value on the open market, asserting that the NCAA has illegally limited a player’s compensation to the athletic scholarship. It was consolidated with a separate, narrower lawsuit filed around the same time on behalf of former West Virginia running back Shawne Alston, who targeted the NCAA for its caps on education-related benefits.

Jenkins’ seven-year battle culminated in June, when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the former athletes. It was the start of what has been a summer of upheaval for college sports in the United States. A week after the high court’s decision, the NCAA bowed to mounting political pressure by announcing new rules that allow student athletes to make money off their names, images and likeness (commonly known by the abbreviation “NIL”), a policy that would have enabled Jenkins to capitalize on the success of his music video.

Both the Supreme Court’s ruling and the new NIL rules were watershed developments, upending the NCAA’s stringent rules against compensating student athletes. But the model has not been completely dismantled. The student athletes won’t start collecting salaries from their universities, and the NCAA remains adamant that they should not be considered employees. That change, should it ever arrive, is almost certainly still years away. “The NCAA has been structured for so long the same exact way, just not allowing players to profit or really do much of anything outside of going to school, playing the sport and generating massive amounts of revenue,” Jenkins said. “With the NIL and my suit, it was just cool to see that rules could change in the future.”

The NIL rule provides a fairly straight-forward path toward compensation. Under the new policy, student-athletes are free to land endorsements or sell their autographs for money, just to name a couple of now-permitted business opportunities. Setting up a system through which they could make money directly from their schools gets more complicated, in part because of the disparity in revenue among the sports that comprise a university’s athletic program. Richard Borghesi, a business professor at the University of South Florida, has argued for years that college football and basketball players in particular should be paid in a manner similar to professional athletes due to the staggering amounts of money they generate for their schools. “If the university is gaining all this revenue from their participation, they should be due a certain percentage of the pot,” Borghesi told the Guardian. “There are so many people who are getting rich – all the executives that work for the NCAA, the universities raking in money. It’s all on the back of people who aren’t being properly compensated.”

In a 2016 paper, Borghesi modeled a scenario wherein players in college football – by far the most lucrative sport in the NCAA – would receive a cut of NCAA revenue. His ultimate goal was to estimate how much money players would earn if the NCAA allowed them to be paid. He calculates the very best players would be due around $800,000 a year.

Borghesi wrote a similar analysis of college basketball and estimated that the best players would earn about $613,000 while the least heralded recruits would earn about $50,000.

Borghesi’s research was fueled by what motivated student athletes like Jenkins to challenge the NCAA in court, and he wonders if the reforms that arrived this summer have rendered the association impotent.

“It’s hard to understand exactly what the usefulness is of the NCAA organization right now,” he said. “They’re limiting compensation to different players. Their whole point was to make things fair across the board so some schools can’t get all the best players. But now that we have name-image-likeness, I’m just not sure what the point is of the NCAA. I don’t really understand why it’s this huge overpowering organization. It seems people don’t want to let go of it.”

The NCAA has earned a legion of adversaries through its insistence that student athletes retain their “amateur” status, which the association has long held up as incompatible to compensation. Supreme Court justices were unimpressed with that point during oral arguments in March, grilling the NCAA’s attorney and telegraphing their unanimous decision that would arrive months later. While the revenues generated by big time college football programs are used to subsidize the often-enormous salaries of coaches and the world-class training facilities on campus, supreme court justice Samuel Alito said that “the athletes themselves have a pretty hard life.”

For his part, Jenkins said that although he came from an upper-middle class family, many of his teammates struggled financially during their time at Clemson.

“They face training requirements that leave little time or energy for study, constant pressure to put sports above study, pressure to drop out of hard majors and hard classes, really shockingly low graduation rates. Only a tiny percentage ever go on to make any money in professional sports,” Alito said. “So the argument is they are recruited, they’re used up, and then they’re cast aside without even a college degree…how can this be defended in the name of amateurism?”

Critics of the NCAA reacted with glee over the justices’ tough questioning, and even more after the ruling and NIL decision were delivered in June. But there remains an old guard for whom “amateurism” is a sacred cow. Dabo Swinney, the head football coach at Clemson who recruited Jenkins, has long expressed opposition to the idea of paying players. Swinney, whose $8.3m annual salary makes him one of the highest paid coaches in college football, clarified his stance last month, saying that he is still “against professionalizing college athletics” but that he welcomes the NIL rule.

Despite the differing views, Jenkins still adores his former coach, and he said that Swinney never disapproved of his involvement in the lawsuit seven years ago. But in the wake of sweeping changes to the college game, the two will have plenty to discuss.

“I’ve been meaning to reach out to him,” Jenkins said of Swinney, “so we’ll have that conversation.”




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