Who Asked You?: Hey NCAA, pay your athletes!

Annika Hiredesai and Emma Yarger

Who Asked You? The Daily’s opinion podcast. This episode discusses the complexities of paying student athletes in the wake of the NCAA vs. Alston Supreme Court case.

EMMA YARGER: From The Daily Northwestern Opinion desk, I’m Emma Yarger.

ANNIKA HIREDESAI: And I’m Annika Hiredesai. This is Who Asked You — The Daily’s opinion podcast. Today, we’re talking about if and how the NCAA should pay college athletes. 

EMMA YARGER: Equitable pay is heavily impacted by privileged and marginalized identities. This conversation is further complicated within the sports industry, where pay is often determined by an athlete’s popularity and revenue. Today, we’re going to discuss how universities should go about paying student athletes equitably based on whether or not athletes play a revenue sport like football or basketball, whether a player is on a men’s or women’s team and whether that student is White or a person of color.

ANNIKA HIREDESAI: Before we begin, we want to remind you that the views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

ANNIKA HIREDESAI: Hi everyone, my name is Annika, she/her/hers, and I’m so excited to be kicking off the Who Asked You pod revival with my co-host today. 

EMMA YARGER: Hey y’all! I’m Emma. I use she/her and they/them pronouns. I’ve been watching soccer for as long as I can remember and have always been mad that the US women’s soccer team makes so much less than the men’s. Now thinking about college sports, the issue of athlete compensation — or lack thereof — gets way more complex. 

ANNIKA HIREDESAI: It’s an interesting issue for sure. And kind of like you, Emma, I first got into the issue just because of the inequities between male and female athletes. I grew up a tennis fan, one of the only sports where the gender pay gap was rectified decades ago, so it wasn’t until I got into other sports that I learned about the inequities in pay. 

EMMA YARGER: So, let’s get into it.

ANNIKA HIREDESAI: The issue around college athlete compensation has garnered attention with a recent Supreme Court case. 

EMMA YARGER: The case was first filed against The National Collegiate Athletic Association, or the NCAA, in 2014. Shawne Alston from West Virginia University, Justine Hartman from the University of California and many more D1 athletes sued the sports association because they weren’t receiving equitable payments. This case focuses on paying student athletes beyond scholarships or grant-based aid, potentially including stipends or checks. Alston is arguing that it’s illegal for the NCAA to refuse to pay its players. 

ANNIKA HIREDESAI: And the NCAA is arguing that, if the courts force them to pay players, there won’t be enough distinction between professional and amateur sports. They believe that if they can convince the court that amateurism is necessary to collegiate sports, they will win the case and won’t have to pay players. 

EMMA YARGER: Now that the case is at the Supreme Court, it’s looking like Alston will succeed in getting pay to play. It actually seemed like justices on all sides of the bench, from left and right, basically said, “I don’t think amateurism is as important as you’re trying to argue it is.”

ANNIKA HIREDESAI: Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked if consumers really enjoy watching unpaid people play sports, and Seth Waxman, the NCAA’s attorney, responded with, “Yes, that is our line.” Yikes.

EMMA YARGER: A similar, but separate, debate is about compensation for name, image and likeness — sometimes referred to as NIL. This isn’t being considered in this court case but has been an ongoing conversation in college athletics for years, so we’ll be considering that issue on this podcast as well. 

EMMA YARGER: Earlier this week, I had the chance to talk to Medill senior and former Daily Sports Editor Andrew Golden. Andrew most recently wrote for the Chicago Tribune’s sports section. Andrew said the NCAA’s “amateurism” argument doesn’t make sense when it comes to the reality of today’s college athletics. He thinks college athletes should be paid.  

ANDREW GOLDEN: I think as is, especially if you’re looking at basketball, or they’re only going to college for a year and then leaving anyway. So I think there’s already kind of a minor league system going right now, or you go to college for a year, and then all of a sudden you’re supposed to just go to the NBA draft, li\ke it’s just more of, I guess, a stepping stone.

EMMA YARGER: So now that we sort of framed out the legal issues, I think it’s fair to say that I think that student athletes should be compensated. What do you think, Annika?    

ANNIKA HIREDESAI: I think that they put in a lot of work. There are a lot of sacrifices that go into being a student athlete. And I think when we get to the nitty-gritty of it, that’s where it gets complicated, because how that’s going to actually play out, and especially because it looks like that might happen sooner than we think, is a really complex issue. 

EMMA YARGER: For most of this podcast, we’ll be discussing some of the issues around the equitability of paying college athletes. Right now, there’s a huge divide between football and men’s basketball and other sports. There’s also a divide between White athletes and non-White athletes. And on top of that, there’s a divide between men’s and women’s sports. And all of these things go into making it really difficult to figure out what the best way to pay athletes is.

ANNIKA HIREDESAI: Alrighty, so clearly, we can see that football programs, men’s basketball programs for the vast majority of Division One schools are the major revenue generators.  So what’s really interesting about what you said, Emma, is that teams and sports that don’t necessarily generate as much revenue, if you look at the amount that they generate versus the cost, even though the cost is significantly lower than like, the more heavyweight sports or teams, a lot of that funding is still subsidized by the university. So a lot of the smaller sports or less spectator-oriented sports — sports that don’t really get those big media deals — their budgets are mostly funded by, for example, the football program. So it’s interesting that yes, the football team and basketball team make the most revenue, but some of that revenue does go towards ensuring that other sports can still exist.

EMMA YARGER: If college athletes were to be paid, one of the drawbacks potentially would be that there would be less money to go around. And the people who would bear the brunt of that are actually coaches for smaller teams, because we know that football and men’s basketball coaches get paid a lot of money. But that’s a different story for say, women’s track, or women’s tennis, then those coaches aren’t getting paid as much. And so, if student athletes start to get paid out of that general revenue fund, especially big stars like football athletes and men’s basketball athletes, the smaller coaches are actually going to be the people who are going to suffer from that decision. So something that I would like to keep in mind as we keep going is, how do we pay those athletes or give them compensation for their work while also being fair to those coaches?

ANNIKA HIREDESAI: And I think it’s interesting you bring that up, because if there’s ever been a time where we’ve kind of seen an almost-case study for this is the pandemic. Obviously football programs bring in a lot of revenue because of ticket sales and things like that.  

EMMA YARGER: Yeah, and it’s really sad. And I think that’s part of why this Supreme Court case is really timely because as we’re sort of coming out of this, it’s an opportunity to start fresh, almost have a clean slate because the pandemic has sort of wrecked college athletics. We have the opportunity going forward to try something new, and I hope that the NCAA can get their act together going forward.

ANNIKA HIREDESAI: With the pandemic and not really having that revenue stream, I know that there have definitely been colleges out there that have had to cut say, like their women’s soccer program or their men’s ice hockey program because of the fact that there was no longer the revenue from football to fund those.

EMMA YARGER: Definitely, and that’s something that we have seen in other schools. Researchers, actually from Kellogg, Northwestern’s business school, said that they had a model that predicted if the revenue sports had to dip into that revenue to pay athletes some of the things that would get cut, or some of the things that universities would be most likely to cut, are smaller sports. And obviously, that’s not a good thing. That’s not what I’m advocating for. So how do you find a way to, to compensate without cutting is really the conclusion that I’m coming to here?

ANNIKA HIREDESAI: I agree. It gets really nuanced there. 

EMMA YARGER: I brought this issue up with Andrew too. He thinks that it’s okay to break away from tradition to honor the work of student athletes. 

ANDREW GOLDEN: I understand that, you know, they want to keep things, you know, they wat to keep things as separate as possible from professional athletics. But at the same time, just because not all tradition is good tradition, I think that ultimately they really need to look at this and realize how much money they’re making off these athletes and think like, how are we actually exploiting these athletes?

ANNIKA HIREDESAI: The fact that if the money isn’t going to, say, the athletes, a lot of the times it’s going towards paying administration, increasing bureaucracy, and then also head coaches. So if you go through the NCAA database for 2020 stats, for example, just the one that sticks out the most is men’s basketball. At the D1 level, when just considering Black and White demographics, 56% of athletes are Black and 23% are White. When you look at head coach stats, 28% are Black and 71% are White.  So if you think about where the money is going and who’s bringing in the money with their work, there’s this awful directional path of like Black students and student athletes working and the profits going towards White coaches for the most part. 

EMMA YARGER: Totally, and something that we know is that marginalized groups will continue to be marginalized, even if the NCAA chooses to pay athletes. In any pay system, White men are often the ones who are going to be getting the most benefit. And people of color, especially Black people, who are honestly sports stars, a lot of the time will maybe not get paid in a fair way. And so I think the next step for the NCAA to also consider is how to make sure that their payments are equitable to their Black athletes and brown athletes.

ANNIKA HIREDESAI: College sports is, in a lot of ways, for really talented athletes, a stepping stone to going pro and being noticed by coaches at that level. I think that also just shows up when you look at the graduation rate, like I was reading a 2019 report about Power Five schools. So for those of you who don’t know, those are like the top five most elite college athletics conferences including football and men’s basketball. And compared to the undergraduate population, Black football players are about 22 percent less likely to graduate and their White teammates were only 1 percent less likely. So nearly on par with the rest of the population. I think that if you’re going pro that might play into that statistic. But then the NCAA’s argument that this is still amateur hour, that’s all that there is to it? It just doesn’t hold up.

EMMA YARGER: Yeah, totally. 

ANNIKA HIREDESAI: Because I think before I really went and did my homework on this issue, I would have immediately said, everyone, especially within sports, like all Division One athletes should be paid equally. And that was like my initial thought coming into this. I think a better framework might come from something that I read by Allen Sanderson at UChicago and John Siegfried at Vanderbilt. Their payment system hinges on marginal revenue product, which is the revenue created by that individual’s contributions to the team. If this value exceeds the worth of their scholarship, I think they should be paid accordingly. And for athletes who aren’t necessarily bringing in that level of revenue, I think that there should still be additional opportunities to be compensated. So, you haven’t talked about this yet, but they should be able to be compensated based on their likeness, media deals, marketing, because, in our world especially, those are still great avenues to make revenue and really take advantage of the work that they’re putting in.

EMMA YARGER: So, for basketball athletes at Northwestern, the total expenses by men’s teams more than double women’s teams, with men’s teams spending over $10 million per year and women’s spending a little over $4 million. And the total revenues by teams are also reflective of this. Men’s teams bring in over $12 million and women’s teams bring in only a little bit over $200,000…you see you can see that there’s a big difference in what the revenue is. And so then you can also see that there’s a big difference in what the school is willing to spend on each team. But that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily equitable. We also have that men’s coaches are making a lot more than women’s coaches at our own university. And they spend a lot more on recruiting for men’s teams than women’s teams. 

ANNIKA HIREDESAI: Andrew highlighted that not all payment comes in the form of straight-up checks. Social media has a large role to play here. 

ANDREW GOLDEN: I think more recently, there’s kind of been a rise in athletes speaking up about getting paid, given how hard they work, the amount of money that they’re making for some of these larger programs. And the fact that their image and likeness is being used. We know they’re put on billboards, and jerseys are being sold, and they don’t get a cent from it.

EMMA YARGER: If athletes could monetize their rights, the top women’s players in this year’s Elite Eight would have a greater earning power than the men. And so I think that there is something to the fact that it’s important to pay attention to the fact that women might get the short end of the stick as far as compensation, and if the NCAA did get to decide everything, they might not make as much just because they’re generally not making as much revenue per game, especially looking directly at women’s basketball versus men’s basketball. But I think one thing that’s really cool is that using the power of social media and being able to make revenue off of your name, image and likeness.

ANDREW GOLDEN: But I also think in terms of complications, you think about, like, the media and who they prioritize, and you think about, for example, for women’s sports, White women are predominantly the ones who are centered — White cisgender women. You know, you look at Black female athletes or people who are in the LGBTQ+ community, maybe they don’t get as much money because they aren’t sought out after as much as some of these White cisgender women. So I think there also are inequalities that have to be kind of talked about as well within this.

ANNIKA HIREDESAI: I personally am very tired of hearing the argument that it’s all about media revenue, and our media deals and people just don’t want to watch women’s sports. And I think to some extent maybe that is the idea, and maybe media deals aren’t as big. I’ll admit that. But what you’re saying about moving forward, like the eyes are on social media, like that’s where the money is being made. It’s not on cable TV, it’s not on the BIG10 network.

EMMA YARGER: Two of these top stars from women’s teams are able to make more off of social media than a top star of men. And then the next three players who are able to make, like, significant amounts of money are actually all women as well. And so out of, like, the top 10 most profitable players as far as who could make the most from social media, eight of them are women, and two of them are men. Hailey Van Lith is a first year on the Louisville women’s basketball team and has almost $1 million in earning potential according to Axios. Coming in next is Jalen Suggs, a first year on the men’s basketball team for Gonzaga. And so I think that’s really telling about sort of the way that sports is going in the future, is that it’s not actually just about – it’s not actually about the NCAA, it’s not necessarily about championships, it’s not necessarily about who’s watching on cable TV, it’s gonna be more about influencing and influencers and making money off of Instagram and Twitter. And so I think women kind of rule the game in that sense.

ANNIKA HIREDESAI: Absolutely, and I think that there is some legislation out there that’s already supporting student-athletes’ rights to profit off of their own brand. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California signed the Fair Pay to Play Act in 2019, which would allow student-athletes to make money off of endorsements and hire agents even starting in 2023. Other states like Florida and New York are expected to follow suit to stay competitive.  On the national level, with the NCAA vs. Alston case, the Supreme Court is expected to have a verdict in this summer.

EMMA YARGER: I need to know how this Supreme Court case will play out and if the NCAA will be able to survive this major shift. What does the future hold for college athletes?

ANNIKA HIREDESAI: And what will equitable pay actually look like within college sports once a verdict is made? 

EMMA YARGER: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Emma Yarger. Thanks for listening to another episode of Who Asked You. This episode was reported and produced by both Annika Hiredesai and myself. The audio editor of The Daily is Madison Smith. The opinion editors are Alex Chun and Kenny Allen. The digital managing editor is Haley Fuller. The editor in chief is Sneha Dey. 

Email: [email protected] and [email protected] 
Twitter: @emmayarger

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