What's fair pay for NCAA athletes?

We had an NHL labor stoppage in 2005 and both NBA and NFL labor stoppages in 2011. The new CBAs locked in the players' share of total league revenues:

- NHL players receive between 54% and 57% of total league revenues (57% is reached if revenues exceed $2.7B)

- NBA players were for revenue sharing in the range of 47-51% (the NBA has revenues in the $3.8B range)

- NFL players negotiated in the 48-53% range (NFL revenues are in the $9B range and growing rapidly)

- MLB has not had a labor stoppage, but players receive roughly 51% of total revenues

How do NCAA basketball and football stack up?

Sport Total Revenue ($B) Player %
NHL 2.9 54-57
NBA 3.8 47-51
NFL 9 48-53
MLB 7 51
NCAA BB 1.3 10
NCAA FB 5.3 6

I've assumed 13 full scholarships per basketball team and 85 full scholarships for football team, and I've charitably valued them at $30,000 per year, so I think I've vastly overstated the players' share of the pie. (Remember, we're only talking about room, board and tuition - travel, per diems, training facilities, medical care - those are all items that professional teams are responsible for independent of salary.) "Amateur" NCAA players are underpaid by roughly 80-90% compared to their professional counterparts, who may very well be younger than them. The NBA salary cap forces LeBron James to play for less than he's worth; he played for even less than he was worth during his first four seasons in Cleveland; and had he been forced to unnecessarily spend a year in college, it would have been nothing other than more revenue in the NCAA's pocket.

At least the first two issues result from negotiations between the players and the league. There's no way you can pretend that the compensation that college basketball players receive is anywhere near their true value - especially when NCAA basketball head coaches get paid on the order of 20% of total revenues. As hard as it may be to understand given how easily we've allowed the NCAA's professional athletes to be exploited, basketball players should be making $150k on average in Division I, and, at the top schools, the best players should be making millions. Think that threatens the supposed sanctity of amateur college sports? Well, that train left the station a long time ago - there's no such thing as a billion-dollar-plus amateur business.

Joe Nocera's series of columns in the New York Times detailing the NCAA's misdeeds has opened a door that can never be shut. The NCAA has manipulated teenagers in the same way that the major professional sports did before free agency. Only the owner of the most rose- and sepia-toned glasses could possibly think it was better back in the old days - it's not as though money that didn't go to the players flowed back to the fans through lower ticket prices; it went straight to the already massively wealthy owners. (I think Chris Rock said it best - "Shaq is rich. The man who signs his checks is wealthy.") If you come down against athletes having the right to even individually negotiate their compensation, you'd better be willing to apply the same standard to yourself.

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