MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: paying college athletes.
The NCAA oversees nearly half a million student athletes across the country. None of them is allowed to accept payments from schools, boosters, or sponsors. They can only take scholarships and related academic assistance.
NICK EICHER, HOST: But college sports teams are big money-makers. Really big. During the 2016-17 school year, the NCAA brought in $1 billion in revenue. So what’s so wrong with student-athletes getting some of that? Maybe nothing, and maybe things are about to change. Here’s WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Amber Schultz began running competitively in high school.
SCHULTZ: So I actually ended up winning 15 state championship titles, individual titles.
Division 1, NCAA schools from all over the country recruited her. Schultz’s parents were ranchers in Wyoming and money was tight. She says she had to go to the school that offered the best scholarships.
In 2010, she settled on a full-ride to Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. There Schultz earned All-American status three times. But despite her success, she struggled financially.
SCHULTZ: My freshman and sophomore year I was down like 45 pounds from when I came in because I budgeted my money to save. I wouldn’t spend it on food as much. There at the beginning I did not get another job because I was going through nursing school, while competing. So it was definitely two full time jobs.
Schultz dreamed of running in the 2016 Summer Olympics. To do that, she wanted to train with a running club during the summer. But under NCAA rules, she couldn’t join a professional club or even race to earn money. And she didn’t want to risk losing her scholarship.
Schultz says many college athletes are squeezed between their athletic and education goals.
SCHULTZ: I see quite a few, like those standout young athletes, they’re like, okay, well I’m getting offered so I’m just gonna not do college because I can’t do both… And that breaks my heart that they had to choose between an education and pursuing a professional dream that may only last one year, or five years, or ten.
Congressman Mark Walker agrees that dilemma isn’t fair. In April, the Republican from North Carolina proposed the bi-partisan Student-Athlete Equity Act.
WALKER: What we want is the opportunity for the student athletes to have the same access to the free market that every other American or in this case, every other scholarship student has.
The bill would change the IRS tax code to allow college athletes to get paid for the use of their name, image, or likeness. That would open the door to payments from sponsors, and competitions.
The bill does not require schools to pay student athletes.
WALKER: Student athletes are the only ones that literally have to sign a moratorium over to any access to their likeness or even to their own image. In other words, uh, we now own everything about you. Well, we think that’s an injustice.
Walker’s bill is still in committee, but California state senators passed a similar bill last month. It’s now headed to the state Assembly.
In response to growing criticism of its rules, the NCAA formed a committee in May to explore whether it should change them.
Richard Ensor heads the Metro Atlantic Athletic Association. He agrees that in some situations the rules are unfair.
ENSOR: If you’re staying in college athletics and the college is using your likeness for some commercial enterprise then there should be some form of compensation coming back to the athlete.
But Ensor says third party payments go too far. Ensor and other rule supporters argue payments could distract players from education and breed corruption. Sponsors and boosters could pay athletes to attend certain schools. And that could exaggerate the financial differences between programs.
And Ensor says if a college athlete needs financial support—they can get help.
ENSOR: If an athlete has extraordinary need, in many cases they can receive additional compensation.
But critics say even so, most college athletes only have a limited window to make money from their abilities.
SOLOMON: Very few college athletes will turn professional. But for some of them, they do have some value right now in these four years.
Jon Solomon is with the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program. He argues beyond the rules being unfair… they aren’t enforceable. Solomon says backdoor payments are an open secret in college athletics.
SOLOMON: Quite a few players may not even know that someone’s making money off of them and it’s just happening behind their back. They may not know that a parent has their hand reached out and they’re getting that money from, um, an agent or from a college coach. And that could be another compelling reason to let them be able to make money off their own name as it comes out into the sunlight and there’s transparency.
Solomon and other rule-change supporters don’t anticipate the NCAA will make meaningful changes on its own. That’s why they’re looking to federal and state legislation.
As for runner Amber Schultz, she didn’t make it to the 2016 Olympics. Injuries held her back. But Shultz says she’ll always be grateful for the experiences she had in college and maybe 2020.
SCHULTZ: I don’t have sponsorship now, but I’m totally okay with that because I think I’ve grown as an individual and like my priorities are to be with my family now, and I can train where I’m at.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.