When one of college football's top coaches makes a point of letting the world know he believes his players should essentially be paid, it gets a lot of attention.
“When student-athletes call it a game, corporate-types call it a business,” Michigan's Jim Harbaugh said not long after the season began. “When the student-athletes call it a business, the corporate-types call it a game.”
Overhauling the collegiate sports model to allow athletes playing at the highest levels of college football to share in the billions television networks are paying conferences for the media rights to their games is an idea gaining traction. Especially in the court of public opinion.
Even 10 years ago, suggesting players get a cut of the massive TV deals that fuel athletic departments would have been met with incredulity by those who work and follow college sports. Now, Harbaugh is not even the only high-profile coach in the Big Ten to advocate publicly for revenue sharing with players. Penn State's James Franklin took a similar position in an interview with The Associated Press earlier this year.
The four biggest conferences have media rights deal of various lengths worth more than $20 billion, with football driving most of that value. The Pac-12 is in the final year of a $3 billion deal that was record-setting when it was signed in 2011, but soon surpassed by other leagues.
Skyrocketing coaches' salaries, an arms race of spending on athletic facilities and, most recently, drastic, revenue-driven conference realignment have made it harder to defend not giving college athletes a bigger piece of the pie.
“It can harm or eliminate some of the arguments that have been made in the past as to why college athletes shouldn’t be paid,” said Mit Winter, a Kansas City-based sports attorney.
The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics last week released the results of analysis that projected through 2032 the expenses of 54 public schools currently in Power Five conferences. It found those schools will collectively will be spending only $11 million more on scholarships and medical expenses for 30,000 athletes than they will on compensation and benefits for 594 football coaches.
While many in and around college sports believe revenue sharing with major college football players is inevitable, those in position to affect change are more cautious. The importance of gender equity, best encapsulated by the federal Title IX law, is a potential factor.
“We’ve had coaches share (ideas) and then we’ve had conversations ... Did you really think about the rest of that, like, what’s on the other side of that observation?” Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey said.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said: “I’m open to anything that expands the value for students. But I don’t hear a lot of ideas that have Title IX at the forefront. They need to. That’s important.”
If college sports leaders — who have been pleading for Congress to regulate the way athletes can be compensated for name, image and likeness endorsement deals — don't come up with a plan to have more revenue flowing directly to athletes one could be forced upon them.
A bill in California that would have forced some schools in the state to share revenue with athletes in money-making sports was introduced earlier this year, but has stalled. An antitrust lawsuit in Pennsylvania filed against the NCAA and major conferences could lead to college athletes being given employee status. A complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board also threatens to lead to college athletes being deemed employees.
Jim Cavale is the founder and former CEO of INFLCR, a company that works with dozens of schools on activities related to NIL compensation for athletes. He started INFLCR four years before the NCAA lifted its ban on athletes cashing in on their fame, anticipating that eventually it would happen.
Cavale recently launched Athletes.org, a free membership organization for college athletes that provides support with NIL activities, legal representation and help with other challenges that have emerged in a radically changed landscape. It is not an effort to unionize athletes, Cavale said, but instead looks toward a future where the relationship between athletes and their athletic programs is more similar to a professional sports league.
Cavale said the NCAA's transformation committee recommendations last year were a good step to ensure schools and conferences were investing in things such as long-term medical care, mental health services, and financial and legal guidance for college athletes.
“Now, with that I felt strongly that the report was missing media-revenue sharing, and other ways that the pie of gross revenue could be allocated in a format and a fairer manner for college athletes,” Cavale said.
A group of entrepreneurs who run NIL collectives, the donor-funded and managed organizations that have become a common way of paying college athletes without schools being directly involved, have banded together and proposed a revenue-sharing plan to the NCAA and SEC. Each school would allocate a portion of the media-rights distribution from a conference to the collective that supports the athletic program. The collective would then pay the athletes, which in theory would get around players being employees of the school.
“We don’t want the players to be employees either," said James Clawson, co-founder of Spyre Sports Group, the collective that works with Tennessee athletes. "But we think they should be sharing in the revenue that they help they generate.”
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