One summer night when I was in college my friends and I were meeting up at Applebees. One good friend was telling us how he had run a 5K that morning and finished second.
“I won $25,” he told us. “But I couldn’t keep it, because it would have been an NCAA violation.”
This friend at the time was on a partial track scholarship at Division II Lenoir Rhyne University in North Carolina. Despite the fact he was running at a Division II school and admittedly had no chance of ever going pro in track, accepting the $25 would have essentially made him a professional athlete, and he would lose his scholarship and wouldn’t be able to run college track anymore.
This made me mad for two reasons.
1. This kid owed me a lot of gas money from throughout the years, and I thought if he had come into a little bit of cash that day he would be the one paying for our half-price appetizers that night.
2. More importantly, what was the big deal? He was running a street race, not wearing a Lenoir Rhyne uniform, and it was $25.
Last week, California passed the “Fair Pay to Play” act that would allow college athletes to make money off of their being athletes. As is the case with any conversation of college athletics and money, this was met with both cheers and jeers.
Where much of the discussion takes place is about whether college athletes should be paid, but it’s important to differentiate between paying college athletes and allowing college athletes to make money.
Paying college athletes an actual paycheck from the school is an extremely nuanced conversation, mostly because while Division I college football and basketball bring in billions of dollars, that is only two of two dozen NCAA sports, most of which don’t bring in any money at all. And while it’s nice to dream on those billions being divvied up between all those athletes, it won’t happen. Who gets how much, and how equal do you divvy? It’s a logistical nightmare to even think about, especially when you consider Title IX.
But allowing college athletes to make money is a much different conversation, and that’s where the Fair Pay to Play act comes in. When the law goes into effect in 2023, athletes in California will be able to make money from endorsements, autograph signings, and anything else someone is willing to pay them for without fear of losing their scholarship. Imagine being a Division III college athlete and having a local car dealership offer you $100 to be in a commercial. That would now be possible, and according to the AP as many as 10 other states are currently drafting legislation to follow California’s lead.
Of course, this law has been met with a lot of backlash. Tim Tebow, best known for winning the Heisman Trophy and two national championships while playing quarterback for the Florida Gators, went on ESPN last month to express his frustration with the idea of allowing athletes to make money, fearing it would make students “selfish.”
“When I was at the University of Florida I think my jersey was one of the top selling jerseys around the world… and I didn’t make a dollar from it,” Tebow said on ESPN’s First Take. “But nor did I want to. Because I knew going into college what it was all about… what makes college sports special, to now it’s not about us it’s about we… it changes what’s special about college football.”
The irony here is that Tebow is one of the better examples for why college athletes should be able to make money. It’s impossible to know how much Florida was able to profit off of Tebow’s play on the field, but it was certainly in the tens, possibly hundreds, of millions when you consider ticket sales, memorabilia, and TV contracts. And Tebow’s best playing days were in college. He lasted just three seasons in the NFL, and was generally considered a bust. The money he made off of endorsements post-college is certainly much less than he would have made during his time with the Gators.
And Tebow was a lucky one, because his personality netted him an on-air job with ESPN, and a chance to give baseball a try in the New York Mets minor league system, so he’s not struggling for money. But many, many college athletes are. While his argument is a sweet thought, and there is something really lovely about the idea of playing sports for the love of sports, that simply isn’t possible for every college athlete in the country.
When people talk about paying college athletes, the focus is often on the Tebows, the Zion Williamsons, the Johnny Manziels, and big names like that. But they’re a very small percentage of college athletes. And Division I athletes are a small percentage of overall players in the NCAA.
The NCAA’s website states, “More than 460,000 NCAA student-athletes – more than ever before – compete in 24 sports every year.” The most recent NCAA statistics show there are roughly 179,000 Division I athletes, 122,000 Division II, and about 190,000 Division III.
Sixty-two percent of Division II student athletes receive some level of athletic aid, according to the NCAA. But in Division III, athletic scholarships are not allowed at that level. More than a third of all NCAA athletes are not able to receive any sort of athletic scholarship money, but are also not allowed to make money off of themselves.
Division II and Division III athletes certainly won’t be able to make life-changing money off of endorsements in the way a Duke basketball player or Alabama football player would, but Duke and Alabama athletes also have the chance to continue making money off of their likeness beyond their college days. For lower level athletes, those four years is likely the only chance they have to make money off of themselves. What’s so bad about letting them keep $25?
(This story originally appeared in The Martinsville Bulletin.)