This past February, eventual No. 1 NBA Draft pick Zion Williamson and his Duke Blue Devils played a college basketball game against their rivals from North Carolina. Before the game, the TV feed looked like footage from one of those old-school Muhammad Ali fights, the crowd packed with celebrities, former President Barack Obama among them. Seconds in, Zion’s foot exploded through his shoe, injuring his ankle and sidelining him for the UNC game and the next five.
The incident enforced two things: First, Williamson could’ve gotten seriously hurt, leaving millions of dollars and potentially massive career on the table. Second, the argument for not paying NCAA players because they’re amateurs is pretty silly.
Last week, two South Carolina Democrats, state State Sen. Marlon Kimpson and Rep. Justin Bamberg, introduced a bill last week similar to one recently passed in California, allowing college players the ability to profit by selling their name, image and likeness — granting them the chance to make money off endorsements.
If you’ve ever turned on ESPN, you’ve heard the voluminous arguments about why college players shouldn’t be paid. But public opinion is increasingly swinging the other way. And I’m all for it.
Consider Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney. He has a 10-year contract worth $93 million, making him the highest paid college coach in history. When asked about his stance on players getting paid by The Post and Courier back in 2014, his response was, “As far as paying players, professionalizing college athletics, that’s where you lose me. I’ll go do something else, because there’s enough entitlement in the world as it is.”
Not really sure how a millionaire making money from free labor can get by calling other people entitled. And before the hate mail comes, know that I have no problem with these coaches getting these contracts. My only response would be: Why can’t students get paid too?
But if we pay college athletes, the pervading question goes, how do we do it? And when there isn’t a clear response people would just shrug and say, “Welp, guess we should just let it stay as it is.”
America usually has long had a weird relationship with the optics of free black labor — because we often call that something else that rhymes with “shmavery.” And that isn’t hyperbolic. Walter Byers, the first executive director for the NCAA, writes in his 1995 book Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes that the term “student athlete” was designed to keep colleges from having to provide long term disability payments to players injured while participating in the sport.
“This is not a suggestion for new government controls,” he writes, “on the contrary, it is an argument that the federal government should require deregulation of a monopoly business operated by not-for-profit institutions.”
He goes on to call this “exploitation” of the athletes.
During a 1995 speech (at an event where he was being honored for his contributions to college athletics) he noted that a “neo-plantation mentality” guides the present system, and that coaches and administrators “own the athlete’s body” and act as “overseers and supervisors.”
Does this mean that we shouldn’t enjoy our collegiate sports? I mean, you ever question how your Jordans are made?
Here’s a few more points to make to those who are against paying players:
First, when we talk about the NBA specifically, as soon as a player enters the draft, he’s no longer able to go back to college. What if he doesn’t get drafted? He should be able to come back to school.
Second, when someone like Zion has his shoe blown out, people debate about him playing another collegiate game. The very real possibility of him getting hurt and losing tons of money was a serious issue. If he had decided to sit out following the injury, why bury him as a quitter?
In a local example, after Gamecocks running back Marcus Lattimore suffered two knee injuries, he was eventually selected in the fourth round in the NFL Draft. A far cry from where we thought he was going to go if healthy. (I can’t help but think of Lattimore having the trajectory of someone like Ezekiel Elliot with the Dallas Cowboys, now the highest paid running back in the NFL.)
How to make student athletes getting paid work, whether directly from the schools they play for or through the endorsements that bills like California’s push for, is complicated. But it’s not hard to see the glaring inequity when the athletes responsible for generating billions of dollars don’t get paid anything, while their coaches get millions.
Let’s figure it out.
Preach Jacobs is a musician, artist and activist and founder of Cola-Con and indie label Sounds Familiar Records. You can hear his podcasts and read more work at FightThePower.co. Let us know what you think: Email firstname.lastname@example.org.