College athletics at a crossroads over student-athlete compensation

April 12, 2022

Screen capture of The Way Forward Series with President Judy Olian, Michael Schill, and U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy of Connecticut

Well after the last flakes of confetti were swept off the floor at this year’s Final Four games in New Orleans and Minneapolis, the future of college athletics, including its compensation model for student-athletes, remains a defining question for the NCAA.

Are student-athletes employees of their respective institutions, and should they be compensated beyond a full athletic scholarship?

University of Oregon President Michael Schill, who serves as chair of the Pac-12 CEO Group, insisted Wednesday that student-athletes are not employees.

Schill also said student-athletes are fairly compensated with full athletic scholarships and everything associated with them — meals, comprehensive healthcare and other services, an annual package worth about $150,000 per student-athlete at Oregon.

U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy of Connecticut disagreed with Schill’s viewpoint. Last June, Murphy introduced the College Athletes Right to Organize Act in the Senate with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Murphy argues that student-athletes deserve more than a scholarship.

He believes they deserve a share of the multi-billion dollar revenue stream that generates millions of dollars each year for schools competing in “big-time college athletics” such as members of the Power Five conferences — the Pac-12, the Big 12, the Big Ten, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and the Southeastern Conference (SEC).

Schill and Murphy joined Quinnipiac President Judy Olian and Director of Athletics Greg Amodio for an hour-long discussion Wednesday about “The NCAA and the Supreme Court.” The conversation was part of the president’s virtual speaker series, “The Way Forward.”

The discussion was based on last summer’s unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision in the NCAA v. Alston case. The nation’s highest court upheld lower court rulings that the NCAA violated antitrust law by prohibiting student-athletes from earning income from their name, image and likeness (NIL) and other economic opportunities.

And yet, Saint Peter’s University — Quinnipiac’s partner in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference — became the first No. 15 seed to reach the Elite Eight of the NCAA men’s basketball championship last month.

“Part of the beauty of collegiate athletics is that you have more or less a level playing field,” Olian said. “For these Cinderella stories, it isn’t that unequal now with NIL and selective collective bargaining. But clearly, there are going to be the mid-majors and [other schools] that are not going to be engaging because they don’t make money. They’re not football schools.”

There is a significant difference between the Power Five schools that play college football at the highest level with multi-million dollar facilities and the mid-major Division I institutions such as Quinnipiac that do not sponsor football programs.

How significant?

Consider: For the 2020 fiscal year, the Big Ten paid Ohio State, Michigan and other members $54.3 million, according to USA Today.

Likewise, the newspaper reported, the SEC paid Alabama, LSU and its members $45.5 million each, followed by the Big 12 with checks ranging from $37 million to $40.5 million, the Pac-12 with $33.6 million payouts and the ACC with checks ranging from $30.9 million to $37 million.

For Quinnipiac, competing in the MAAC with other mid-major Division I institutions that don’t play football, the revenue transaction is far less lucrative. In fact, it costs Quinnipiac money to compete in the MAAC with annual membership dues and other expenses.

Although QU has built some of the top facilities in New England over the last 15 years with the People’s United Center, the Quinnipiac Soccer & Lacrosse Stadium and the Quinnipiac Field Hockey Stadium, balancing the athletic department budget and maintaining a top-tier presence among MAAC schools and other competitors is a real challenge.

“We’re at a collision point right now,” Amodio said. “The money has to come from somewhere, so it’s either additional investment in a very, very difficult economic environment in higher education, or you have to take from other places in the enterprise to be able to support that.”

But at a time when the stakes are so high in college athletics with issues of equity, access and opportunity, Murphy doubled-down on his antitrust position.

Murphy called the NCAA’s current revenue distribution model a civil rights issue. He also referred to it as a “fundamental economic injustice” in Wednesday’s dialogue.

“There's no industry out there like this one where there's this much money in the industry, and there’s a pretty hard cap on the amount of money that the most important laborers are reaping from that,” Murphy said, referring to the student-athletes.

“I do categorize it as a civil rights issue,” he added. “You can’t ignore the fact that especially when it comes to big-time football and basketball, these are largely African American players and these are almost exclusively non-African American coaches.”

While Schill acknowledged that there’s work to do and a successful outcome will require a committed, collaborative approach, he denied that Oregon is a proving ground for aspiring professional athletes.

Rather, he said, it’s an institution of higher learning with a higher purpose, much like Quinnipiac.

“I don't think Oregon is a feeder school to the professional leagues,” Schill said. “I think our students would like it to be. You have 100 or maybe 120 people on our football team. They all think that they're going to end up in the pros."

“But they’re not, right? Maybe a handful will end up in the pros ... and the rest are going to be able to go out and get a job — and that is where I want to focus on,” Schill said. “I want to focus on the educational process. Professionalizing or calling us professional is just diminishing that connection.”

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