Big-time U.S. college athletes deserve real compensation

College football players squatting
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Ken ReedOn the same day that NCAA president Mark Emmert was testifying in front of U.S. Congress about how terrible it would be if college athletes were allowed to earn money from their names, images and likenesses – like any other college student or U.S. citizen for that matter – Michigan State was giving Colorado football coach Mel Tucker a contract worth approximately $33 million.

Tucker is far from one of the most successful college football coaches in the United States. A longtime assistant coach, he finished his first and only season as a head college football coach at Colorado with a 5-7 record. The year before, his predecessor, Mike MacIntyre, had a 5-6 record.

Amazingly, schools like Michigan State are throwing $33 million at coaches like Tucker (and millions more for assistant coaches) while the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) lobbies Congress for the ability to continue denying college athletes their economic and civil rights.

I asked civil rights historian Taylor Branch about this.

“College athletes are both athletes and students,” said Branch. “It’s definitely a civil rights issue. The governance of college sports is a civil rights issue because the athletes are citizens and are being denied their rights by what amounts to collusion. Colleges are telling football and basketball players they can’t get anything above a college scholarship. The athletes are being conned out of their rights.”

Schools in Power Five conferences now average more than $110 million in annual revenue.

So tell me again why big-time college athletic programs can’t treat athletes more fairly from an economic perspective?

“The current system basically screws a bunch of kids, a lot of them disadvantaged kids,” says New York Times columnist Joe Nocera.

This doesn’t even have to be about putting college athletes on the school’s payroll. Admittedly, that would be a messy thing, given Title IX (federal legislation that prohibits program funding inequity), worker’s compensation and other complicated factors.

Just allow college athletes to benefit from their names, images and likenesses, like Olympic athletes are now allowed to do.

For decades, the Olympics were supposed to be strictly for true amateurs. People said the Olympics would never be the same and would lose popularity if the athletes were paid. But eventually the rules changed and Olympic athletes were allowed to receive sponsorship money and revenue from other sources. The Olympics didn’t go away. In fact, the movement got bigger and more popular. And the athletic competition remains just as spirited.

The same thing can be done for NCAA athletes.

Emmert went to Congress last week and had the gall to say that allowing athletes to benefit from their names, images and likenesses would be a threat to the survival of college athletics. That’s shameful. It didn’t kill the Olympics and it wouldn’t kill college athletics.

Let athletes benefit from their fame and likeness like their fellow students. Let them take endorsement money like the coaches who lead them. If a local store wants to pay a college athlete to sign autographs for two hours during a store sale, why shouldn’t the athlete be allowed to take that opportunity? Music students on college scholarships are free to accept cash or gifts for playing a weekend gig at the local club. Why should athletes be treated differently?

They shouldn’t be.

There’s nothing unethical about allowing a college athlete to make money off his or her athletic talent and fame.

What’s unethical is the dishonest charade the NCAA tries to pull off when it tries to ignore the fact that big-time sports are also a big-time business.

Athletes deserve to share in the enormous wealth created due to their efforts on the courts and fields of American universities.

It’s the only fair, ethical and decent outcome.

Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (, a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.

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