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Aaron Taylor (left), Darren Rovell and Anna DeForge; presenting at Lambeau Field.

For Love of the Game?

Eminent figures from the world of professional sports tackled the thorny question of compensation for Division I college athletes during a lively morning of debate at this year’s Sport & Society in America conference, hosted on campus and at Lambeau Field.

College sports at some Division I schools are generating billions of dollars in broadcast media rights, imaging, licensing fees and more. And those funds are going to pretty much everyone and every group but the athletes themselves. It’s a situation that has sports-labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler riled up, and his comments on the subject made for compelling listening the morning of May 25 in the Hornung-Starr Legends Room at Lambeau Field.

“These schools, these businesses, are literally making so much money that they have nothing to spend it on,” said Kessler. “It has created … hugely overpaid coaches, athletic directors who are making millions of dollars, facilities that are better than some of the facilities in the pros … because they have to spend the money somewhere. They’re nonprofits … And the question becomes, shouldn’t any of that go to the athletes?”

The debate about paying Division I student-athletes centers around the fact that some college football and basketball players are in a position to help their respective educational institutions rake in billions of dollars. True, they are eligible for scholarship dollars that cover tuition, room, board and books. But this compensation pales in comparison to the revenue streams possible for schools that are, essentially, exempted from paying their players. Various lawsuits against the NCAA have been filed in recent years in regard to the topic.

Interestingly, two former standout collegiate athletes who also spoke on the subject in front of the same Sport & Society conference audience took a more cautionary approach. To them, the situation is more complex. Aaron Taylor, college football analyst for CBS Sports, played at Notre Dame before he went on to a pro career with the Green Bay Packers and the St. Louis Chargers. Anna DeForge, Wisconsin Hall of Famer and two-time WNBA All-Star, played at University of Nebraska.

DeForge and Taylor said problems could easily arise if schools elected to give more money only to their star players. Yes, a particular point guard or lineman might clearly be a superstar. But their prowess is also due to the support they receive from their similarly talented teammates.

DeForge said, “If I was not the best player on the team, but I was on the team – I was a part of the team, I was at practice every day, I was doing the same thing that the best player was doing – I don’t know how you fairly compensate the superstar on the team versus the player who’s still going through everything … . I think this is the problem that you would create in the culture of the team. And now it’s going to affect maybe chemistry, outcome, winning percentage … We’re talking about young kids, where jealousy is going to be an issue. And maybe now the relationships aren’t what they’re supposed to be because so-and-so is making a little bit more money than I am, but I feel like I’m entitled to it because I’m doing the same thing as well. I think it’s really a tough issue.”

Taylor agreed that compensating just the elite players could be quite problematic for team harmony. “We already have issues where, ‘I think I’m better than that guy and I should be playing’ … If [compensating only elite players] happened, it would blow that up and be that on steroids, if you will.”

Yet Taylor also noted that collegiate athletics has seen exponential growth in revenues, with pretty much everyone benefiting but the athletes themselves – something that is totally unfair. Educational institutions could even the playing field, he suggested, by creating an annuity that is funded by group licensing fees. Such an annuity would benefit everyone on the team. Players could receive a share upon graduation. In addition, those players who did not graduate could return to campus at any time in the future and use their annuity proceeds to pay to complete their degrees.

Taylor thought it would be great if former players who never graduated, then later regretted it, could go back and get their degree. “If we give them credit cards, or just give them bigger checks, they’re 22, they’re going to make bad decisions,” he said. “But if you do something that helps them form the foundation of their life, that will be a deliverable on the slogan on the front end: ‘This is a 40-year decision, not a four-year decision.’ ”

ESPN sports business analyst Darren Rovell, who cut his teeth on student radio, commentating on baseball and softball at Northwestern University, joined Taylor and DeForge for the panel on “Academics and Athletics.” Rovell weighed in with a clear “no” on the question of payment. But, he argued, players should be able to split royalties with their schools on sales of jerseys with their names on them. “I do think players should be able to market themselves. If you’re in that small world, you should be able to do endorsement deals. The endorsement money is new money … . It is easily figured out.” 

Kessler, who helped bring free agency to the NFL, is currently directing a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA, brought on behalf of DI football and basketball players. The lawsuit would, in essence, allow schools or conferences to make their own decisions on compensating players. Institutions dedicated to education have chosen also to go into billion-dollar businesses, Kessler says. “But if you're going to make that choice, you shouldn’t have free labor as a result. ... 99 percent of the Div. I basketball and football players will never spend a day in the pros. They will get nothing out of what they’ve contributed to this financial enterprise, at least in the form of compensation.” 

Although no one can say what any given school would do if it was allowed leeway in compensation, he floated the idea of schools setting up trust funds for athletes, a notion similar to Taylor’s. Specifically, Kessler said each year a school could add some money to the fund, say $25,000 per player. Then, at graduation, every student-athlete would walk away with $100,000. This would not only more fairly compensate the students, but would also encourage them to stay in school and graduate. 

“I trust the schools to make good decisions if they’re allowed to do so,” Kessler said. “Right now they are shackled. They can’t choose.”

As a center for excellence in the field of sports economics, St. Norbert College takes a keen academic interest in the business of collegiate sports – the theme, in fact, for its 2016 Sport & Society conference. St. Norbert’s own storied athletics program is well outside the sphere of debate in this regard: its revenues are negligible and, as a Division III school, it is not permitted even to offer athletics scholarships to its student-athletes.   

June 27, 2016