If you’ve watched a college basketball game recently, or simply bothered to fill out a March Madness bracket, it’s likely you’re familiar with the three words that have become something of a rallying cry for progressive-minded fans of college basketball: Pay. The. Players.
Thanks to outspoken NCAA critics like historian Taylor Branch, ESPN commentator Jay Bilas, and introduction-not-necessary LeBron James, it’s no longer a radical notion to believe that the NCAA is corrupt, forcing athletes to work for no pay as “amateurs” while the organization itself makes billions off of their labor.
In fact, the NCAA might soon be facing a reckoning. This week, high-school senior and McDonald’s All American Darius Bazley decommitted from Syracuse and decided to forego the formality of a one-and-done year in the NCAA in order to go pro and sign with the NBA G League — a development league for the NBA. If he’s successful and is still one of the top draft picks of the 2019 draft, he could start a trend of elite prospects skipping their amateur year in the NCAA. And later this year, the NCAA has to return to court to defend its limits on compensation to college athletes.
But almost every time someone floats the radical idea paying athletes for their labor, another faction chimes in with a question: What about Title IX?
Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in any federally-funded education setting, has been incredibly beneficial to women’s sports, as it requires schools that receive federal funding to have proportional opportunities for men’s and women’s athletics. Opponents of paying players are quick to stoke the fear that ending amateurism would kill Title IX completely, because a university’s entire athletics department budget would concentrate in men’s basketball and football, leaving zero money and resources for anything else. Alternately, some are concerned that if schools were actually forced to pay male and female athletes equally across the board, athletic departments would go broke, and that all college athletics would die an untimely death.
In other words: the women will ruin everything.
Well, friends, I am here to bust this myth. Supporting women’s sports and paying athletes their fair share are not mutually exclusive; in fact, ending amateurism would be a boost for male and female athletes, from revenue and non-revenue sports.
Ending amateurism would benefit both men and women
Fundamentally, ending amateurism does not mean athletic departments will necessarily write fat checks to their athletes. Rather, the NCAA could adopt an amateurism model, which would allow student-athletes to profit off of their likeness, work with sponsors directly, have an agent, get paid for appearances, and other things the NCAA’s ridiculous bylaws currently prohibit.
The common refrain is that such a model will only benefit athletes from the main two revenue sports, men’s basketball and football. But that’s not true. Sure, there’s a possibility the market would work in their favor. But it’s a misconception that nobody cares about female athletes. Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky loved swimming for Stanford, but the only way for her to make any money from sponsors in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympics was to turn pro and stop swimming for Stanford this month. Who exactly does that benefit? Stanford, college swimming, the NCAA: they are all losers here. It’s self-defeating in its stupidity.
That’s an extreme example, of course, but talented athletes in pretty much every market have some sort of value to local businesses and the community. Women’s sports aren’t charity, they’re entertainment. People do care about women’s sports. There were about 40,000 fans at the women’s basketball Final Four last year. Almost 12,000 people attended a UCLA-USC women’s soccer game last year. The women’s volleyball championship game last December was played in front of 18,516 fans. Two Major League Baseball teams averaged fewer fans last season.
Last year, 1.78 million viewers tuned into ESPN for Oklahoma’s 17-inning victory against Florida in the Women’s College Wold Series. The Tulsa market had a 3.9 rating during the WCWS. The notion that women can’t benefit financially from that exposure and attention is absurd, especially considering they don’t currently have the professional opportunities that men do.
You wouldn’t necessarily have to pay everyone equally
According to lawyer and professor Marc Edelman, concerns about Title IX are merely a “red herring” when it comes to paying college athletes. In Forbes, Edelman writes that Title IX does not directly state whether it requires equal financial compensation beyond scholarships.
He also points to a specific case law — Stanley v. University of Southern California — that is often used to justify paying the coaches for men’s teams more than their women’s team counterparts, in part because the men’s game generates far more revenue.
Economist Andy Schwarz also cites the pay disparity between coaches for men’s teams and women’s teams when discussing why it’s a myth that paying players would be a violation of Title IX.
Additionally, Schwarz looked into the Title IX regulation that says that scholarships and money spent on men’s and women’s sports must be proportional to the general populations of men and women on campus, within one percent. He analyzed data from the 2009-2010 season, and found 22 of 73 schools with top athletic programs had more women than men on campus, yet all 73 spent more on men’s sports than women’s sports, and all but three of those schools with football programs spent more on men’s scholarships than women’s scholarships. Overall, when looking at the percentage of sports scholarships in relationship to the percentage of the student population, Schwarz found that 61 of the 73 major sports programs violated the “theoretical requirements” of Title IX.
“From this, I conclude that in practice, Title IX does not actually mean that colleges spend the same on men’s and women’s sports – not at the program level, not at the individual athlete level, not at the aggregate scholarship level, and not even with a one-percent cushion relative to participation ratios,” Schwarz says.
In other words, if you extrapolate from the way Title IX is currently applied, there is no reason to believe that the regulation would require schools to bend over backwards to pay the exact same dollar amount to men’s and women’s sports. The free market would still be allowed to reign. The NCAA could implement a tiered system based on sports and revenue, or even based on achieving some sort of competitive milestones. The possibilities are endless!
Investing in women’s sports is good for all
For argument’s sake, let’s pretend that ending amateurism does lead to a stricter implementation of Title IX, and athletic departments are required to pay female athletes one dollar for every dollar they pay male athletes.
Well, okay! That’s great! Let’s do it!
It honestly doesn’t have to be that hard. Ed O’Bannon, a member of the 1995 UCLA national championship team and author of Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA with Michael McCann, is among those who advocates for every athlete to make the exact same amount — a fixed payment that will go to the starting quarterback on the football team and the benchwarmer on the women’s water polo team. In that case, the university would know exactly how much to budget each year for athletes, so it could work on nailing down its other costs. Finding funds for such a plan could involve reducing exorbitant coaches salaries, not splurging for that state-of-the-art remodel, or slashing some of the recruiting budgets. But it would not be impossible.
If you prefer more of a free-market system, then things get more complicated, but only slightly. Let’s say the only way to sign that 5-star point guard recruit you think will take your program to the men’s basketball national championship is to offer him $100,000. That would mean you would also have to spend $100,000 on women’s teams in order appease Title IX guidelines. Great! You could spend $50,000 to recruit the star women’s tennis player who is considering whether to turn pro or go to college. You could go after the McDonald’s All-American women’s basketball center, or even an Olympic gymnast who is considering college before turning pro.
Of course, while it might be easy for a program to recoup its $100,000 investment on the quarterback thanks to a multi-million dollar television contract, that same program might have a women’s basketball team that only attracts about 3,000 fans per game and hasn’t made the NCAA tournament in 10 years. So, paying top athletes on both teams might seem unfair. However, now that you’ve spent money on that star player, the team might win more, which would attract more fans and more money. And that second $100,000 investment in the women’s basketball team might also push the marketing department in the athletics department to promote the women’s team some more and get the All-American on the local news stations, or even do more cross-promotions between the women’s basketball team and the men’s basketball team.
Women’s sports are often stuck in a dead zone between the chicken (investment) and egg (interest). A strict enforcement of Title IX that coincides with paying players could be the best thing that could happen to women’s sports — I bet programs would magically have an interest in promoting women’s sports and paying female athletes if the viability of their football program depended on it.