As March Madness Heats Up, So Does the Debate Over Paying College Athletes

Another season of NCAA March Madness is nearing its end, with Oregon and Gonzaga advancing to the Final Four after victories over Kansas and Xavier on Saturday.

This marks a particularly momentous occasion for the Oregon Ducks, who will be making their first appearance in the Final Four since 1939.

The NCAA has undoubtedly enjoyed another profitable year after raking in over $1 billion in revenue from last year’s tournament in the form of ticket sales, advertising, sponsorships, and media rights.

In addition, the NCAA signed a 14-year deal with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting in 2010, a lucrative contract worth $10.8 billion. Following an extension in April 2016, CBS agreed to pay the NCAA an additional $8.8 billion in order to retain rights to air March Madness games through 2032.

These numbers also fail to take betting into account, with the American Gaming Association estimating that $9.2 billion will be gambled on the tournament by the time of its conclusion.

With such a successful money maker on their hands, what does the NCAA do with their annual influx of wealth?

The NCAA itself keeps only four percent of the profits each year, with the remaining 96% being channeled into the schools, particularly those in Division 1. This is generally in the form of various distributions, or expenses such as travel. A large portion of this money also goes into scholarships and internship programs, as well as injury insurance for the athletes.

Despite the schools receiving such large amounts of money from their participation in the NCAA and March Madness, student athletes see no direct form of compensation, even though they are the ones who are creating the revenue.

“You go to Chapel Hill and try to go to a Carolina-Duke game, good luck trying to find a ticket. It’s nationally televised,” said Marvin Williams, a former basketball player from UNC-Chapel Hill, To the Charlotte Observer. “There’s so much money that goes behind just one basketball game. I do think the players from both sides should definitely see some type of benefit.”

Jared Walch of the Daily Utah Chronicle says that the number of hours that athletes put into practice and games equates to a full-time job, and that outside of scholarships students aren’t given enough to survive.

A survey conducted by the NCAA in 2011 found that college football players at Division 1 schools practiced for an average of 43 hours a week, and that men’s basketball teams practiced for 39 hours.

“Sure, many of these athletes are on scholarship, which pays for their tuition and room and board in most cases, and we’ve covered the stipends, which average between $2,000 and $5,000 annually. Let’s get real. How many of us can live off of $2,000 a year?” wrote Walch.

The NCAA is known for operating under a policy of amateurism, in the interest of stressing the importance of education even for athletes. Under this policy, student athletes are largely banned from being paid, playing with professionals, and hiring an agent to represent them.

The debate over paying student athletes has seen an increased level of interest in recent years. In October of 2016, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case of O’Bannon v. NCAA, a class action lawsuit demanding payment to Division 1 athletes for the commercial use of their images.

Although in 2013 the NCAA was found to be in violation of antitrust laws in restricting payment to athletes, the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declared in 2015 that it was not required to pay athletes additional money for playing, aside from the cost of attendance at their chosen school.

“In this case, the NCAA’s rules have been more restrictive than necessary to maintain its tradition of amateurism in support of the college sports market,” the court wrote. “The Rule of Reason requires that the NCAA permit its schools to provide up to the cost of attendance to their student athletes. It does not require more.”

John Thelin, a professor at the University of Kentucky, believes that the current scholarship model is more beneficial to the students than offering a salary, due to the tax-deductible status of scholarships.

“So, a student-athlete paid a salary would owe $23,800 in federal income tax and $6,700 in state taxes, a total of $30,500. In cities that levy an employee payroll tax, the salaried student’s taxes go up about $2,400 per year. Income taxes then are $32,900,” wrote Thelin in Money. “And, as an employee, the player would have to pay at least $2,000 in other taxes, such as Social Security, for a total of $34,900. This leaves the college player with $65,100. Since college bills come to $65,000, the player has $100 left.”

Judy Rose, athletic director of the Charlotte 49ers, argues that a salary is unnecessary, as athletes also benefit from the national attention provided by college sports.

“I don’t think athletes are being exploited. I think there’s a symbiotic relationship there,” Rose told the Charlotte Observer. “Without the university platform for them to compete, there is no exposure for them. None. So that experience alone and that opportunity creates the platform for them, for visibility.”

There are other obstacles to paying student athletes, as well.

Blake Marshall of the Utah Daily Chronicle argues that not only is it unrealistic to calculate the logistics of paying student athletes, but that as a whole college sports are not overly profitable for the schools.

“The money these programs bring in goes to pay for the facilities, the training, the programs and all kinds of other expenses of the university. So, just because there is a cash cow that produces a lot of money, it doesn’t mean that money can be used to pay the athletes,” said Marshall.

As the argument rages on, most recently in the form of court case Jenkins v. NCAA, momentum does not appear to be on the side of the athletes. A 2015 HBO Real Sports/Marist Poll found that 65 percent of surveyed Americans opposed paying college athletes beyond scholarships.

For the foreseeable future, amateurism is here to stay.

“The fact is, athletes shouldn’t be compensated when they already have so many things going for them,” wrote Marshall. “Maybe I am a college sports purist, but I think bringing money into the equation will only be a bad thing for college athletics.”

Judy Rose would like the focus to be taken off of money, and returned to education and the world of athletics.

“I just think the money issue has clouded what the real purpose is, regardless of where the money is coming from and how much is coming in,” Rose told the Observer. “I want the whole story to be told about the value of an education and put dollars to that.”

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