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The Mass Media

Pay for play: Should colleges control player autographs and likenesses?

Tens+of+thousands+of+fans+packed+the+stands+to+watch+Florida+State+play+Notre+Dame
Tens of thousands of fans packed the stands to watch Florida State play Notre Dame

I turned on my TV last weekend to watch Florida State play Notre Dame on a major network in a primetime slot. There were upwards of 80,000 paying customers crammed into Doak Campbell Stadium to watch two of the top programs in the country have it out with a potential berth in the new College Football Playoff on the line. The money that was being thrown around when you consider TV rights, concessions, ticket and parking prices, and advertising, was tremendous. In fact, had you shown that game on mute to someone that doesn’t know football, it would have been impossible for them to tell that the men on the field were still “amateurs.”
And that’s because they’re not. Sure, the majority of the men on the field will never play the sport professionally, but you would be foolish to think that football is not the primary focus of most everyone on that field, coaches included. Football consumes players on major teams with the prospect of future millions far outweighing a commitment to academics. Perhaps one more hour in the weight room, or one more session studying film, will help someone make it to the next level. You see stories about those sort of sacrifices all the time in newspapers or on TV networks, and they always glorify the player for his commitment. Does this sound like the sort of conduct that an amateur would engage in? The bottom line is that the top stars in the NCAA must be allowed to earn money for their work.
The dictionary defines “amateur” as, “a person who engages in a study, sport, or other activity for pleasure rather than for financial benefit or professional reasons.” Now apply that definition to a major college football or basketball player. Granted, plenty of them play because they love their sport and know that they have no prospects of playing it for a living, but it’s hard to argue that Todd Gurley, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel, Terrelle Pryor, and other great college players weren’t playing for “professional reasons.” In fact, Manziel admitted that he only took online classes at Texas A&M after he won the Heisman in 2012, so he wasn’t exactly staking out his spot in the library to study for midterms.
All of the athletes listed above were caught up in some sort of scandal that involved them receiving compensation for either their autographs, or their own game-worn memorabilia. Pryor and Newton were never suspended, but Newton nearly lost a Heisman and Pryor’s coach, Jim Tressel, resigned after the season concluded and Ohio State received a postseason ban stemming from the incident.
Millions of people tune in every week to watch college football on virtually every network and they never lament at how quaint it looks. Stadiums with capacities of over 100,000 fans have become commonplace and team apparel sales have never been higher. The National Championship Game is the second most viewed sporting event in the United States every year — trailing only the Super Bowl. College campuses are littered with students wearing football jerseys and the players never see a dime. There are all sorts of stories about players going to bed hungry at night or stealing food because they are not able to take on a job thanks to their practice schedules. If players are going to dedicate this much time to their craft in hopes of making a career in the NFL or the NBA, then the solution to this issue becomes very clear: it’s time to pay them.
That’s not to say that they should make a salary. I’m firmly against that. A kick-off specialist at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology should not be compensated like Marcus Mariota. A shooting guard at Lamar should not get the same money as Jabari Parker. Athletes should be compensated based on the prestige and attention that they bring to the university. If a Heisman contender is bringing national television to campus a few times a year and helping with recruiting, why should he not receive a cut of the action? University presidents and athletic directors are lining their pockets while the players that make their salaries possible are begging their coaches over the phone to feed them before they go to bed (as Arian Foster described in the documentary “Schooled: The Price of College Sports”).
Administrators at the campus and NCAA level claim that athletes are being compensated with a free education, and that may be true for the star of the tennis team, but Todd Gurley, for example, is not at Georgia to try to make a career in financial services. He is going to play in the NFL and he knows it — as does everyone else on campus. He is alleged to have charged a small fee for his autograph and has been suspended indefinitely from the football team, ending his promising Heisman campaign. Gurley is discussed on sports talk radio and ESPN in the exact same fashion that NFL players are, so what is the real difference between him and a pro? The fact that someone who has 100,000 people paying to see him play never gets a cent for his performance is ludicrous.
The argument against paying the most well-known and in-demand athletes is that schools would have to pay every athlete, because someone on a D3 swim team puts in just as much time and work as the QB at Notre Dame. In reality, they don’t, because they know that their sport will not set them for life in the same way that a star football or basketball player does. Sure, they could go into coaching or athletic administration, but they will never earn eight-figure salaries like the top pro-athletes do.
The NCAA doesn’t have to pay anyone. All they have to do is allow athletes to profit off of their likenesses in any way that they see fit. If Todd Gurley wants to endorse a product or shoot a commercial or sell his autograph, he should be not only allowed, but encouraged to. As a writer, I’m allowed to sell my work for a profit, even though I’m still in college. Why should being in college affect whether or not you can profit from all of the effort that you put in to something? It should not. It’s time to pay these guys.