Should Collegiate Athletes be Compensated?

January 4, 2016


By Brian Howarth – Thompson Rivers University JD Candidate

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is the governing body of university/college sports in the United States, and Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) is their Canadian equivalent. Both of these organizations do not compensate their athletes in a monetary fashion, yet many elite Canadian athletes still flock to the United States to compete in their sporting system. Approximately 3,500 Canadian athletes are enrolled in U.S. NCAA programs, which includes roughly 2,000 athletes that could be in comparable programs offered within the CIS. One of the most notable illustrations of this trend can be seen in women’s hockey, where 460 Canadian players were playing at U.S. universities in 2012.

The compensation issue dwells down to the classification of these athletes. They are classified as students and amateur athletes; therefore their education is their compensation. David Church, head of the Canadian seniors women’s national hockey team and the York University Lions commented on the situation, stating that the CIS might be more alluring with better financial support, but that the current scholarship model being tied to academics is important. Church is quoted saying, “I believe strongly in the CIS model, in that we’re student athletes first”.

Where this issue really comes to light is within the NCAA. The United States court system has recently provided jurisprudence on this matter, namely in the case of Edward C O’Bannon, Jr. O’Bannon challenged the provisions within the NCAA that do not allow for student-athletes to be paid for the use of their names, images, and likeness, as being contrary to section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, 15 U.S.C. § 1, [which] prohibits “[e]very contract, combination …, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce”. Unfortunately, after an appeal, the court vacated the injunction to pay $5,000 of deferred payments per year to athletes. They did, however, uphold the ability for an increase in the “grant-in-aid”, which allows for the coverage of full costs of student attendance. Additionally, though the National Labour Relations Board ruled against such unionization, the Northwestern University football team attempted to create a union, on the basis of being school employees rather than student-athletes, all in a plight to more fairly compensated.

The major factor here, that seems to be in the background, is the sheer economic power the NCAA wields. The NCAA generated $989 million dollars in its 2014 fiscal year. In 2010 it signed a 14 year $10.8 billion contract with CBS and Turner Broadcasting to televise its men’s basketball tournament and in 2012 signed a 12 year $5.64 billion contract with ESPN to broadcast football playoff and bowl games.

Although, much of this money is distributed to schools, athletes aren’t seeing any of it. Schools are also paying coaches an exorbitant amount of money. Consider Nick Soban, currently the highest paid coach in the NCAA, coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide football team, makes over $7 million a year, with a bonus structure to reflect strong performance of the team. USA Today reports that over 100 coaches in the NCAA make over $500,000 annually.

In Canada, data from 2012-2013 reveals Canadian universities provide nearly $15 million in scholarships to athletes within the CIS. However, only “40% of all CIS student-athlete receive an athletic scholarship which, on average, covers 51% of their tuition and compulsory fees.” Although this can be coupled with academic scholarships as 23% of athletes maintained an academic average above 80%, it is simply not enough.

The CIS is just not in the same league as the NCAA, economically or financially, but the principles remain the same. These athletes are putting the future sporting careers on the line to participate in these programs. Gone are the times when collegiate athletes were in the shadow of professional sports. With such a large influence over these programs and incredible revenue stemming from their popularity, athletes should be given a means of compensation. It should be an issue revisited on both sides of the border, because if one organization implements compensation protocols, one can be sure that the athletes will congregate to participate there.

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