• Loading stock data...
Sunday, March 3, 2024

The NCAA’s Existential Question: Can You Pay Players and Still Call Them Amateurs?

  • Multiple court cases, including one resuming a trial on Monday, are debating the question.
  • The NCAA has made a proposal to compromise, but it may not be enough to stop the death of amateurism.
The NCAA is facing an existential crisis as it weighs whether to pay some players while ensuring they don't become employees.
FOS Illustration

On Monday, in a conference room in Los Angeles, a National Labor Relations Board trial will resume, with the goal of resolving whether college athletes should be considered employees—the existential question of NCAA sports.

The trial is one of the many places where the debate over the future of amateurism is playing out across the country. Pressure to label collegiate athletes professionals is mounting through other National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) cases and multiple federal cases. The NCAA, meanwhile, is battling in Congress (most recently in a hearing on Thursday) to pass a law preventing those athletes from attaining employee status. The collegiate governing body is even facing criticism from some of its most high-profile constituents, like Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, who argued after winning the national championship that athletes should get a share of revenue and the right to unionize. Ohio State’s new athletic director, Ross Bjork, echoed some of Harbaugh’s comments on Wednesday.

Amid all the noise, NCAA President Charlie Baker is trying to appease all sides with a new athlete-pay proposal. But it may not be enough to stop momentum toward an employment model. 

“It’s [athletes’] voices that are often sidelined in conversations about the future,” Rep. Lori Trahan (D., Mass.) said during Thursday’s hearing in Congress. But “athletes have more power today than ever before.”

A Mountain of Litigation

Over the past five years, the NCAA has faced several lawsuits over athlete employment, including multiple cases at the NLRB. 

The case that’s resuming on Monday centers around USC football and basketball players. The National College Players Association filed an “unfair labor practice” charge in 2022, claiming that USC, the Pac-12, and the NCAA have illegally misclassified football and basketball players as amateurs, rather than employees. The NLRB agreed to take up the case on the NCPA’s behalf and began in-person prosecution in December at the NLRB’s regional office in L.A. At the time, NCPA executive director Ramogi Huma told Front Office Sports he believed the initial days of the trial “couldn’t have gone better.”

That prosecution resumes on Jan. 22 and will continue for two weeks, with the potential for another session at the end of February, if needed. It will take months for the NLRB to hand down a decision.

On the other side of the country, Dartmouth men’s basketball players filed a different type of case with the NLRB: a unionization petition similar to the case filed by Northwestern football players in 2014 (which ultimately failed). A hearing was carried out via Zoom in October, but a regional judge has yet to hand down a ruling. Even though those players are pursuing a slightly different legal avenue than in the USC case, a win would ultimately result in the same outcome: If athletes are allowed to unionize, they’d automatically be professionals.

Employment status is “not really up to athletes,” UCLA quarterback Chase Griffin said during Thursday’s Congressional NIL hearing. “That’s up to the NLRB. But I do think it’s important to note that currently—based on the number of time, effort, and hours—we operate as employees.” (The NLRB’s general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, does believe many athletes should be considered employees.)

The NLRB isn’t the only entity hearing cases on this matter. The furthest along is Johnson v. NCAA, in which Villanova football player Trey Johnson and several other plaintiffs argued that all Division I athletes should be employees and get paid minimum wage. That case is currently awaiting a decision from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to determine whether professionalism for collegiate athletes is even plausible under the law, let alone whether it’s the correct designation. Athletes have filed other cases with similar premises. 

Of all the cases facing the NCAA, none are calling for all athletes at all levels to be considered employees. But that hasn’t stopped President Baker and other anti-employee advocates from making arguments about the horrors that would befall college sports if all athletes, at all levels, are deemed employees. 

It looks increasingly unlikely that the NCAA will bat 1.000 on all these legal attacks, experts agree. But a federal law overriding these court decisions would be the governing body’s ace in the hole.

Illusion of Reform 

The NCAA is now trying to convince Congress to pass an anti-employee status law under the guise of “reform.” In December, Baker introduced “Project DI,” a short, broad proposal for how schools could begin to pay athletes in a way that satisfies not only their demands, but also those of public opinion. The proposal has three main suggestions: 1) Allow schools to “share NIL revenue” with athletes. 2) Eliminate restrictions on educational benefits. And 3) Require a group of the richest schools to put money into an educational trust for athletes.

NCAA members are “glad we’re finally talking about the elephant in the room,” Baker said during his annual State of College Sports address at the 2024 NCAA Convention in Phoenix. He also noted during the Congressional hearing that the proposal could help increase gender equity in NIL by allowing athletes to sign deals alongside schools—and therefore be subject to Title IX. (Ironically, the project has already been cited by NLRB lawyers as an admission that athletes should be employees.)

But the proposal is less radical than some initially believed. While it tries to placate reformers by offering athletes increased pay, it stops short of giving them employee status. That’s by design.

Baker has said on multiple occasions that in order for the proposal to work, Congress must pass legislation declaring collegiate athletes to be amateurs once and for all. He’s requesting “special status” that allows those athletes to get paid, but not to be considered employees. That way, athletes could get some extra cash, but the NCAA’s business model would remain intact. (He has also said that the proposal is an attempt to demonstrate to Congress that the NCAA is doing its part to fix its own problems—so Congress should step in to fix the rest.)

“There is this sort of … desperation here,” College Football Players Association executive director Jason Stahl tells Front Office Sports. “ ‘We need you to rescue us.’ … Because, yeah, I do believe the NCAA knows that they are going to lose all these cases.”

But there’s another way for the NCAA to maintain control that it continues to openly reject: unionization and collective bargaining. Stahl and Athletes.org founder Jim Cavale, both of whom spoke with Front Office Sports, agree that this solution is the best way forward for the NCAA. “There’s a desire to continue trying to unilaterally impose comp restrictions on athletes,” Cavale says. “The real solution is not to do that. The real solution is to collectively bargain all of these terms with the respective athletes who create this value.”

Everyone has an opinion on the NCAA’s existential question. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter what athletes, schools, reformers, or even the NCAA president want. A judge will make the final decision over the future of amateurism—not based on the welfare of college sports, but based on the law. 

Linkedin
Whatsapp
Copy Link
Link Copied
Link Copied

What to Read

The Caitlin Clark Economy: Much More Than an Army of Traveling Young Girls

The economy surrounding No. 22 goes far beyond her biggest fans.

Sheer Madness: What You Need to Know About MLB’s New Uniform Saga

MLB’s reworked uniforms have become a major source of spring training controversy.
Aug 15, 2019; Baltimore, MD, USA; Chain crew members walk on the field prior to the game between the Green Bay Packers and Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

Football Is Finally Getting With the Times, Technologically Speaking

Helmet communications in college and first-down technology in NFL could be coming.

Tuned In: Inside Fox’s Plans for Covering Caitlin Clark’s Regular-Season Finale

The Iowa star’s biggest game to date won’t be buried on any streamer.
podcast thumbnail mobile
Front Office Sports Today

Jenny Cavnar is Breaking Barriers During Oakland’s Strange Season

0:00
0:00

Featured Today

Oct 5, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, points to the lettering outside of the museum Tuesday.

How Do You Keep Negro Leagues Baseball History Alive? Put It in a Video Game

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum attracting increased donations, visits from ‘MLB The Show.’
February 26, 2024

The Victor Wembanyama Rookie Card Market Hasn’t Matched His Hype

A cooling market and Fanatics autograph deal leaves big-money collectors waiting.
February 25, 2024

Sham Gods: The Rapidly Growing World of Sports Impersonators on X

Fake Schefters and Wojs, fabricated trade demands, and borrowed profile pictures.
Sep 24, 2023; Oakland, California, USA; A general view of the Oakland Athletics dugout after the game against the Detroit Tigers at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
February 24, 2024

Murky Future: Everything You Need to Know About the A’s Move to Las Vegas

Breaking down one of the most drawn-out, multifaceted sagas in sports.

Careers

Powered By

Careers in Sports

Looking for a new job? Check out these featured listings and search for openings all over the world.
Spotify
Multiple - USA Careers
Nike
Multiple - USA Careers
EA
Multiple - USA Careers

Why New Pac-12 Commissioner Teresa Gould Deserved Better

The first female Power 5 commissioner will inherit her predecessors’ mess.
Washington State
February 29, 2024

Washington State Cuts Football Coaches’ Salaries Up to 10%

The Pac-2 football team has an athletic department deficit near $100 million.
Caitlin Clark
February 29, 2024

Iowa Star Caitlin Clark Makes It Official: She’s WNBA-Bound

Iowa star Caitlin Clark announced she is declaring for the WNBA draft.
Sponsored

How LivePass is Redefining Ticketing for the Next Generation of Fans

The next wave of ticketing technology.
Howard University
February 29, 2024

Howard’s Figure Skating Team Part of Olympic Sport Growth at HBCUs

Olympic sports at HBCUs are growing, with gymnastics and swimming gaining momentum.
February 28, 2024

The George Kliavkoff Era in the Pac-12 Comes to an End

Kliavkoff presided over the 108-year-old conference’s demise.
Cornhole
February 27, 2024

From Tailgates to Scholarships: Winthrop Elevates Cornhole to Collegiate Status

The Rock Hill, S.C., school signed two high school players out of the Denver area to scholarships.
Caitlin Clark
February 27, 2024

Iowa–Ohio State Is the Most Expensive Women’s Basketball Game Ever

The average purchased ticket is $577, while the get-in is $491.