“No one is bigger than the game.” The age-old adage serves as a reminder of humility for aspiring basketball players around the world, and the saying holds true for most athletes. However, an exception has arisen in the form of Zion Williamson, Duke University’s superstar freshman and the 2019 Naismith Player of the Year. Williamson certainly seems bigger than the game; at six-foot-seven and 285 pounds, Williamson makes a mockery of the term small forward. Williamson’s feats of athleticism have made him a staple on Sportscenter’s top ten plays since he was in high school, and his highlight reels have amassed tens of millions of views on the internet.
Williamson has demonstrated the myriad of ways that Division I college sports are no longer simply activities. Rather, they are a business, and Zion Williamson is the NCAA’s best-selling product. During Duke basketball games, national television cameras may pan over hundreds of fans clad in identical copies of a blue jersey with a white “1” embroidered on the chest. The jersey, of course, is a Zion Williamson jersey, and it is available for purchase on Duke University’s website. Like other Division I athletes, Williamson sees himself everywhere, but has yet to receive a penny in exchange for the profit he has produced for the NCAA.
Each year, sports generate $11 billion of revenue for colleges throughout the United States, and Duke University alone amasses over $78 million from its athletic teams. In theory, this revenue is distributed toward scholarships and academic development. In reality, however, a large portion is allocated to the coaches and administrators’ exorbitant salaries. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke’s basketball coach, receives an annual salary of $8.9 million—more than one-tenth of the college’s total athletic revenue. Krzyzewski has earned his reputation as one of basketball’s greatest minds, but at the end of the day, Duke’s success—along with any other Division I school—stems from its players, and those players deserve a fair portion of the millions that they produce.
Currently, student-athletes are rewarded for their contributions to the school with athletic scholarships. These scholarships often eliminate the cost of tuition, allowing athletes to enroll at the school free of charge. Though it is often argued that the opportunity to study at an elite institution is adequate compensation for athletes, most are never able to enjoy a full college education. Forbes Magazine reported that on average, athletes at Division I schools devote 43.3 hours to sports each week, exceeding the average American work week by over three hours.
Orin Starn, a professor at Duke University, published an editorial in which he described how the daily demands of Division I athletes prevent them from engaging academically. Starn wrote that Duke athletes “collectively miss classes by the thousands due to athletic competition….they are delightful, hard-working kids, but they don’t have time to do much more than pass.”
According to the NCAA, Division I athletes must maintain a GPA of 2.3 or greater in order to participate in sports. However, the allure of athletic success has led certain colleges to disregard the academic benchmark. In 2010, ESPN revealed that the University of North Carolina had been creating fake classes for student-athletes and awarding them impressive grades in order for the athletes to maintain their eligibility. By fabricating student-athletes’ academic experiences, schools have undermined the supposed value of learning that is used to justify the scholarship system.
By ensuring that their athletes remain eligible, colleges are able to benefit from the various opportunities for profit that sports provide. The marketability of college sports has been recognized by colleges and brands alike, and corporate giants like Nike and Adidas are long-standing producers of collegiate apparel. Multi-million dollar contracts such as Nike’s $169 million contract with the University of Michigan have become commonplace. Corporate endorsement deals provide a massive avenue for colleges to benefit from the athletic success and cultural relevance of their players. However, the NCAA prohibits individual athletes from signing individual endorsement deals with corporations.
Even though athletes are excluded from these relationships, individual players exhibit incredible influence on how brands are perceived by the general public. Nike witnessed this influence firsthand during Duke’s game on Feb. 20 against the University of North Carolina. Less than a minute into the game, Williamson suffered a freak injury; according to former President Barack Obama, who was seated courtside, “his shoe broke.” Indeed, Williamson’s Nike sneakers had ripped at the seams, causing him to lose balance and suffer a mild knee strain. The millions of fans following Williamson’s every move propelled the topic of his exploding sneaker to viral popularity, and the event was covered by publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. In the day following the mishap, Nike’s publicly traded stock dropped by nearly 2%.
The marketability of athletes like Williamson could provide a platform for player payment that would not encroach on the spirit of college sports. Instead of allotting colleges’ funds to player contracts, the payment of college athletes could stem from endorsement deals, merchandise, and licensing royalties. Dubbed the “Olympic model” by Joe Nocera of The New York Times, this strategy would allow athletes to sign endorsement contracts with brands, profit off merchandise sales, and control the use of their likenesses in television and video games. The Olympic model would allow the general landscape of college sports to remain unchanged while allowing athletes to benefit from their own influence on brands and in the media.
One element of college sports that the Olympic model would not address, however, is the massive impact of sports on schools’ academic reputations. Athletic success often directly correlates to increased admissions rates, a phenomenon dubbed “the Flutie Effect.” In 2016, Villanova University defeated the University of North Carolina with a last-second three-pointer to claim the men’s basketball National championship. According to Forbes Magazine, Villanova’s undergraduate applications then surged to over 21,000—an increase of 21% from the prior year. By increasing the applicant pool, sports allow institutions to become more academically competitive and to form classes with higher caliber students. The impact of sports extends into the academic realm, allowing certain colleges to entirely reshape their academic reputation.
Beyond academics, athlete influence significantly affects the profitability of ticket sales and television viewership for colleges. On Feb. 20, tickets to see Zion Williamson and Duke face off against the University of North Carolina could be purchased for no less than $2,674—nearly as expensive as those purchased by attendees of this year’s Super Bowl. For context, tickets to Duke basketball games in 2016 cost an average of $198, according to news source 24/7 Wall Street. The nationally televised game was viewed by millions, and broadcasting companies have realized that much of this critical attention stems from Williamson himself. In an interview with News Observer, CBS producer Mark Wolff said, “because of Zion [Williamson] we have added a camera dedicated to him the whole time he is on the floor. We hired a cameraman, a camera, a digital tape machine to record everything he does.” Williamson has shown that viewers are not watching college sports just for the schools, but for the players themselves.
Between reputational advancement, endorsement contracts, ticket sales, and television viewership, there are countless platforms for schools to profit off the success of their athletes. As a result of athletes’ direct profitability for their own schools, an alternative to the Olympic model of payment could involve a free market with colleges providing payment for athletes.
As discussed by many proponents of athlete payment, the NCAA could create a cap-regulated free market to mimic the system used by the NBA. Under this model, colleges would be allowed to allocate a certain portion of their endowment to signing athletes. The free market would naturally lead to merit-based earnings for the most promising athletes, akin to the way that free agency is conducted in professional sports. NCAA regulations imposed on salaries would prevent college sports from devolving into a bidding war between the wealthiest schools, addressing a common concern held by opponents to student-athlete payment.
Regardless of whether the payment of college athletes is regulated by the Olympic model or a free market system, the spirit of college sports can be preserved. Paying college athletes isn’t about changing the nature of college sports; it’s about acknowledging and rewarding the players who allowed college sports to blossom into what they are today.
At the end of the day, any model of payment is a good one if it is able to provide student-athletes with fair compensation for their contributions to a multi-billion dollar industry. However, the NCAA is apparently unwilling to compromise, and therein lies the fundamental challenge: dedicated adults are making incredible contributions to the success of this business, and their only reward is a constantly interrupted education and the bittersweet satisfaction of seeing their name on the back of their fans’ jerseys.