The recent decision by college football’s biggest schools to institute an end-of-season playoff to determine its champion will no doubt generate millions of dollars in additional revenue for the sport and its participating schools, and it has added fuel to a growing debate about whether the people who make it all possible — the thousands of players at colleges and universities across the country — should get a piece of the pie.
For a brief moment, the NCAA thought they should. Last year, the organization that oversees college sports initially gave conferences and schools the right to give a $2,000-a-year stipend but delayed the proposal shortly thereafter due to concerns about its implementation. Recently, college football’s most prominent coaches, including the University of Texas’ Mack Brown and all 14 coaches in the Southeastern Conference, have revived the idea, backing the idea that if a playoff is going to help make bowl executives, coaches, athletics directors, and even the NCAA president rich, the players ought to get a cut too.
To traditionalists who value “amateurism,” the idea of paying college football players is absurd. To author and civil rights historian Taylor Branch, though, it is a matter of human rights.
“My concern is not ensuring that the athletes get paid, but ensuring that they get their rights,” Branch told me in an interview. The fight to reform the NCAA and make it more equitable for athletes, he says, isn’t just about compensation, but about giving the players bargaining rights and making them consenting participants in the system. “If you are a grad student at the University of Texas,” Branch added, “you can bargain for how much you get paid as a teaching assistant.” If you’re a college athlete, no such rights exist.
The stipend, as proposed, is a complicated issue, Branch said, since it doesn’t appear to change that. “They’re still within the framework of the old system,” Branch said. “The coaches and athletics directors decide (how much they get paid). This is like a tip a waiter gets. You can’t get market values, and you can’t object to it without being called unethical.”