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AthleticHub Blog

Joe Nocera is the new sports business columnist for The New York Times.

I wrote my first article for The New York Times about the N.C.A.A. four years ago. Appearing in the magazine, it was headlined “Let’s Start Paying College Athletes.” Although I had been a college basketball fan all my life, I had never paid much attention to the inner workings of the N.C.A.A. But my research woke me up to the inequities faced by college football and men’s basketball players, and compelled me to begin writing regularly about how the N.C.A.A. and the college sports establishment exploit the players who generate the billions that the grown-ups pocket.

The conceit for the original article was to imagine that the N.C.A.A.’s “amateurism” model — which, of course, enables that exploitation — had magically disappeared, finally allowing athletes to be paid. My charge was to devise a scheme that would divert some revenue to them without bankrupting university athletic departments or destroying the fabric of college sports. What I came up with was a system that revolved around a salary cap. It also had a handful of other facets, which I’ll get to shortly.

Although the N.C.A.A. had its critics four years ago, they were neither as numerous nor as visible as they are today. The O’Bannon lawsuit against the N.C.A.A. was years from being adjudicated. The college sports reform movement hadn’t yet coalesced. The most prominent voice then calling for players to be paid was Taylor Branch, who had published a seminal article, “The Shame of College Sports,” in The Atlantic just a few months before my piece in The Times Magazine.

Over the next few years, however, the N.C.A.A.’s issues became part of the zeitgeist. As that happened, a raging debate developed about whether — and how — to pay the players. The ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, for instance, advocates a free-market approach, saying that athletes should reap whatever the market will bear. Others promote the so-called Olympic model, in which players would generate income from endorsements, autographs, jobs, and control of their image and likeness.

On the other side of the divide are those who believe that a college scholarship is pay enough — though in truth, most of those taking this position are athletic directors and coaches.

A second concern is that universities cannot afford to pay the players. A leader of this school of thought is Andrew Zimbalist, the prominent Smith College sports economist (and an old friend of mine), who likes to point out that fewer than two dozen of the 350 Division I athletic departments make money.

Offended by the multimillion-dollar salaries of college coaches, Zimbalist has proposed that the N.C.A.A. receive a limited antitrust exemption from Congress, the purpose of which would be to cap the compensation of coaches and athletic directors. (He has also called for players to receive more benefits, like health insurance, and to reap outside income from their image and likeness.)

Finally, there are the courts, which are also fighting over how much to pay athletes. When Judge Claudia Wilken decided the O’Bannon case in 2014, she ruled that the N.C.A.A. was in violation of antitrust laws and that players should receive money to bridge the full “cost of attendance” at college. (Under pressure from the so-called Power 5 conferences, the N.C.A.A. agreed to this a few months later.) She also said athletes should receive an additional $5,000, to be held in trust until they left school.

An appeals court agreed with her about the cost of attendance but struck down the extra $5,000. There is now a new case before Judge Wilken, of the United States District Court in Northern California, that, if the plaintiffs win, will get the N.C.A.A. out of the compensation-setting business and allow the conferences to set their own rules for it.

Which brings me back to my salary-cap idea. As I’ve followed the growing debate over paying players, I’ve been surprised that no one else has gone down this path.

My salary-cap idea would not break the bank, as one side fears, but it does not completely abandon free-market principles either. Mainly, it is a practical approach, and I think that as such it’s worth another look.

Here’s how it would work:

Every Division I men’s basketball and football team would have a salary cap, just as the pros do — except the amounts would be vastly lower. In basketball, the cap would be $650,000. In football, it would be $3 million. It is ludicrous to argue that the Power 5 programs cannot afford this; the combined $3.65 million is barely half the $7 million that Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh made this season. (I would also drop the number of scholarships in college football to 60, which is closer to the size of an N.F.L. team, from 85 in the top tier.)

Second, I would impose a minimum salary: $25,000 per player in each sport. This would obviously not make the athletes rich, but it would give them enough to live like typical college students.

Now to the free-market aspect: The minimum salaries consume only half the cap. The rest of the money would be used as a recruiting tool, so that a star player could be offered additional money as an inducement to go to a particular university. One university might want to offer a star halfback $40,000, while another might offer him $60,000. The player would make a choice based not on a recruiter’s sweet-talking promises — or not solely on that — but on cold, hard cash.

I can see you recoiling at this notion. But let me ask: Is offering cash compensation really that much worse than the current system, in which universities build lavish facilities and spend absurd sums on their “programs” to lure good players? Doesn’t it make more sense to give some of that money to the players? It would actually be less expensive.

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Banner photo credit tMike Ehrmann/Getty Images

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