Apr 9, 2021 | SPORTS | By Michael Braithwaite | Illustration by Xixi Qin

The debate over college athletes getting paid has taken place in America since the beginning of college athletics, and we may now be at a turning point in how student athletes will be compensated. Alston v. NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) is currently being heard by the Supreme Court.

NCAA athletes are arguing that the NCAA’s refusal to compensate them for their playing violates a legal precedent. The final ruling of this case has the potential to nullify over 100 years of an NCAA standard, and could forever change the way college sports are played and how college athletes balance their academic and athletic responsibilities.

In 1906, the NCAA was formed for the purpose of regulating college sports to keep them fair and safe. From the beginning, amateurism was a core tenant of the NCAA, and amateur college athletes were evaluated on their ability to play their sports for physical or social reasons rather than financial ones.

The term “student-athlete” was coined in 1951 by then-NCAA executive Walter Byers to help solidify this tenant as permanent policy. Colleges have used the idea of the student-athlete to stop schools from paying their athletes as if they were professionals, instead compensating them in the form of an education with the notion that the student always comes before the athlete.

However, even a modest investigation into the daily life and educational responsibilities of student-athletes shows, in fact, that the athlete typically tends to come before the student.

On top of a normal class workload, student-athletes also have practices and workouts, as well as other team-related activities that eat into their daily lives. Oliver Fried runs track at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

“Coach wants us to get around eight hours [of sleep] a night, and I struggle to get eight so I try to get enough sleep [here and] there but also obviously making time for class and everything else,” Fried said.

Despite his fairly rigorous schedule, Fried describes track as “one of the less time-intensive sports,” and says that his daily track practice does not even compare to the time the football team spends on team-related activities.

College football, in particular, is one of the more popular sports.  The sport makes colleges a lot of money through sponsorships and television contracts, forcing them to ensure that their athletes are always going to display the best on-field product for their audience.

Colleges can do this in small ways, like giving student-athletes free access to tutors and other tools to help with schoolwork, but the trouble arises when colleges begin sacrificing academic policy for athletic ability.

Such is the case in the form of paper classes, classes pushed at student-athletes to help them inflate their GPA without requiring them to put in much time or work.

John Oliver notably highlighted this problem in 2015, when he discussed how basketball players at the University of North Carolina were taking Swahili to fulfill their language requirement. Not only was it strange that many basketball players were taking the same language, but it was also strange when interviews revealed that the athletes could not actually speak Swahili upon taking the class.

Colleges outright allowing student-athletes to take easier classes to inflate their GPAs would mean that these student-athletes are in fact athletes first and students second, which would not only undermine the main reason for going to college, but also undermine the NCAA’s historic definition of a student-athlete and the rules they need to abide by.

Looking at student-athletes as athletes instead of students also opens the door for them to be financially compensated for their successes outside the classroom as they are no longer being compensated with an education. This compensation could come in the form of a consistent salary or even advertisement/endorsement deals for the most successful athletes.

Alston v. NCAA is not a case regarding the ability for athletes to make money off their likeness for endorsements, but it does deal with athletes being directly compensated for playing their sport. The plaintiff, a group of D1 athletes collectively referred to as “Alston,” is arguing that the student-athlete eligibility requirements and compensation restrictions violate the NCAA’s antitrust exemption.

Section 1 of the Sherman antitrust act of 1890 made it illegal to engage in conspiracy in restraint of trade or commerce, and the common viewpoint is that the NCAA is actively withholding compensation for the product the athletes produce by playing their sport.

A ruling in this case against the NCAA could force them to loosen their restrictions on student-athlete compensation and could lead to collegiate athletes getting directly paid for their abilities in the near future.

However, implementing such a system is not going to be easy. Joseph Collins, an avid college football fan, thinks players should be paid a salary, but also thinks there should be a cap on how much colleges should be able to pay players.

“I would be worried if there wasn’t a cap on how much [colleges] could pay athletes because … I don’t want like schools with really large endowments to be just like ‘trash education’ [in the name of athletics],” Collins said.

Indeed, if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiff, the NCAA is going to have to figure out how to let colleges pay their athletes while maintaining the “fair and safe” ideals that necessitated its creation in the first place. While it seems likely that athletes in rigorous D1 programs will be able to earn some kind of compensation for their abilities in the future, the question remains as to when and how that will happen.

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