Do you want a level playing field? Or a free market system?
In the wake of this week’s statement by the NCAA that it intends to explore ways for athletes to be compensated for their name, image and likeness, it appears that we have only two options left for the direction college sports is going to go.
Option 1: Free Market
Option 2: Level Playing Field
We are going to explore these two options and I am very interested to hear what you think will ultimately be the choice. I have my opinions but I will save them for the end of this article. With California passing its law and other powerhouse states like New York, Florida and Illinois being well on their way to implement similar laws, it was only a matter of time until the NCAA fell in-line with the economic realities and public sentiment about allowing athletes to receive compensation. Unfortunately, the NCAA’s own statement fell far short of coming up with a viable framework which would let student-athletes really understand how the NCAA would interpret the concepts in its statement. You can read more details here in terms of the gaping holes left by the NCAA’s position. Even after you read their statement and understand this holes, you have to take a step away from the anger, hostility and frustration which have long been a part of this discussion. Catch your breath, open your mind and ask yourself what an ideal world of college sports looks like. Most of us can agree we are not there right now, but the question is whether there is even a pathway to get there.
In my opinion, there are only two options. There is no slippery slope, because there is really no place to stop. Or even try to stop. This looks more like a cliff. You are either at the top, or you are at the bottom.
LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
The entire purpose of the NCAA regulating competition in college sports was to preserve some degree of a level playing field. Recruiting restrictions, scholarship limits, admission requirements and virtually everything else that the NCAA governs were put into place to preserve that level playing field. Why are the restrictions virtually limitless and the penalties so draconian? Because Michigan and Ohio State do not trust each other to compete fairly. Alabama, Auburn and LSU believe that its competitors would do everything in their power to win. While the NCAA is an easy target, the reality is that the rules are implemented by the schools. The schools are the ones that want help to protect themselves against other “rogue” schools that would implement a win at all costs arms race. If one elite school in a conference wanted to pull out all of the stops, then other schools would be forced to do the same thing in order to compete.
Many people would argue that the playing field is already unlevel. If you look at the revenue generated in the Power 5 conferences, there are great disparities between the top schools in the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, ACC and Pac 12, especially when you compare them to the lower level schools in each conference. The challenge in front of the college sports community, is how the Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) conversations are going to change college sports.
IF (and that is a big if), you desire to retain a level (or more level) playing field, you will need to grant the NCAA potentially even more power to regulate the actions of the schools, limit the ways that athletes can earn money and monitor how and when that money is paid to the student-athlete.
If that concept sounds repugnant to you, then you are probably a proponent of the FREE MARKET below, but just be careful, because you might get what you wished for.
The Free Market solution means exactly what it sounds like. ALL bets are off. The rules are no longer in existence. Colleges can recruit athletes in any way that they choose. Just like colleges can recruit students today. Nobody monitors whether the students Michigan chooses to admit are following the same requirements as the students Ohio State admits. Alabama can currently admit its choice of students and provide them as much financial support as it chooses as an institution, without any regard to what Auburn or LSU might offer that same student. So why is this a bad thing? It might not be. Let the institutions make their own admission decisions just as they currently do for non-student-athletes. Goodbye NCAA Clearinghouse. Goodbye to regulations about core requirements, minimum GPAs, non-qualifiers or any other form of regulation.
QUESTION: Will this change college sports?
ANSWER: Absolutely. 1000%. Schools will now be free to recruit, pay, provide financial support or do ANYTHING else that they want to attract talent. Just as they currently do for regular students. College sports has changed and it is going to continue to change. The current model is not sustainable and expecting the NCAA to solve the problem is naïve. Olympic sports have easily survived the transition from the amateurism model to one that allows all forms of compensation. So what? Don’t we want to identify the best athletes?
QUESTION: Will this concentrate the power in some of the elite schools.
ANSWER: Yes. It is highly likely that many of the elite Power 5 schools will get the first choice of talent. But so what? If they have the incentive to field a competitive team, the school now has the obligation to make its institution attractive to student-athletes. Shouldn’t we want the student-athletes to make the decision for a reason that makes sense relative to their future goals? If some school is willing to pay more for you to come to their university, might that not be a good thing for the student-athlete? Would some of them consider schools that they would not have considered if they were able to be paid more?
QUESTION: Doesn’t that cheapen the process?
ANSWER: No. It actually makes the school selection process more appropriate to the individual athlete. A player could decide if a smaller payment from Alabama was more worthwhile relative to his professional football prospects, as opposed to cashing in a lower level Power 5 school or even a non-Power 5 school that would give him a greater compensation package.
QUESTION: How are student-atheltes supposed to be able to navigate this process?
ANSWER: Like people in all other aspects of the business world—they would have to hire an attorney and/or agent. Open up this type of consultation and representation, would mean that the student-athletes would have someone helping them navigate the process and negotiate the best deal possible.
So now that you have read some of the options, tell us what you think? Do you really feel that there is another way? Is there any room to compromise and implement some reasonable regulations? I don’t see it. I think we are headed towards the free market system, and heading there quickly. We will not ever see a truly level playing field (or even one approaching what we have now). The universities will have to use their own judgments, morals, endowments and other factors to decide who they want to admit. What type of students? What type of athletes? Spending how much money? Now the athletic department will have to make some economically rational decisions as to who it brings in. Currently, a football program will bring in 85 scholarship players. They can only have 85. So if they are full, they have to find a way to reduce that number (also known as running off a player). If someone is not performing, they can be recruited over, meaning the school does not have to continue to honor their scholarship.
Let’s be clear, the free market system is not without problems. Without a governing body it could be like the Wild West. Players could be bought each year. Players at one school could be recruited to transfer to another school the following year (even if the contracts provided differently). An entirely new body of law would develop around this area because none of us have any idea whether courts would enforce a restrictive covenant in the scope of a college athlete who signed with a university for financial aid or other compensation to play football there. In this free market system, we would almost certainly see the development of a players union. Someone would need to representing the players and their long-term interest.
Regardless of which side of the issue you are on, one thing is guaranteed. This next 5 years are going to contain some of the most radical changes college sports have seen. If you look back at this past week, you will see that this was when the change in the landscape became irreversible.
VOTE NOW: WHAT DO YOU PREFER? LEVEL PLAYING FIELD? OR FREE MARKET?Create your own user feedback survey