Texas A&M quarterback and defending Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel has sparked plenty of debates this college football offseason, first about his off-field exploits and now about whether college athletes should be compensated. The latter debate began when ESPN college basketball analyst found out that the NCAA’s merchandise web site allowed shoppers to search for jerseys by specific athletes’ names, including Manziel’s, even as it was investigating him for allegedly receiving payments for signing autographs.
The latest voice to weigh into the debate: former Speaker of the House and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who devoted his online newsletter to the topic Friday:
This case also reminds us that the NCAA is an authoritarian, self-serving, and self-controlling system.
College football is an enormously profitable system, just not for the players.
College basketball is an enormously profitable system, just not for the players. [...]
Maybe it is time to rethink the entire NCAA system. These athletes are not amateurs anymore. Their schools and coaches certainly treat them like professionals. They just don’t pay them.
Newt being Newt, a self-described ideas man, I figured he’d come into the debate blazing with a grandiose plan to pay college players and alleviate all of the problems created by the current NCAA structure, whether through a free-market solution or something else. So I was, admittedly, a touch disappointed that he relied on common arguments against the status quo that proponents of paying college athletes already espouse regularly.
That said, his presence in the debate is a significant marker of how far it has moved and how far it may continue moving in the future. The debate used to be relegated largely to backrooms and barrooms, far from the mainstream. But it also has an extensive legislative history, largely at the state level, where politicians have introduced bills that would pay college athletes. And given that the issue is now in the legal system and that the government has a history dealing with sports leagues and athletes’ rights (Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption being the prime example), it could one day soon become an issue politicians have no choice but to consider at the national level. In that sense, Gingrich may be ahead of the curve and a sign of what’s to come. In another, though, he’s more evidence that the debate over compensation for athletes is only growing in prominence and isn’t going away, no matter how much the NCAA might like it to.