Wednesday was a landmark day in college athletics, as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Northwestern football players do qualify as employees and are eligible to join the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), according to ESPN.com.
Advocates of players getting paid will undoubtedly praise the move because it is one step closer to players getting their share of the revenue they help generate, while opponents could view this as a ruling that could drastically change college athletics forever.
So what will happen?
The truth is, nobody knows.
If players are employees, then that could bring along a litany of unintended consequences, including, as CBSSports.com's Jeremy Fowler noted in February, major tax issues. If players are employees, the value of a football scholarship and all of the benefits that come along with it (from $35,000 to $70,000, depending on the school) would theoretically be taxable. Depending on what's collectively bargained between the union and the schools, some players may be handed a tax bill on money they neither saw nor had.
There are other issues—including Title IX—that could have an impact on just how these players could be paid. Former Missouri wide receiver T.J. Moe did a great job detailing some of these concerns on Twitter on Wednesday night.
Let's not throw it in reverse; let's put it in park for a minute. Is there a better way to do this to please all parties?
The answer is yes. Pay players primarily at the individual level, not the program or sport level.
How would one do that?
Full Cost of Attendance
This is the easy part. Well, at least in theory, it should be easy.
A $2,000 stipend—which is theoretically supposed to bridge the gap between what's covered in an athletic scholarship and the actual cost of attending college—was approved in 2011, but as Andy Staples of SI.com notes, it was tabled in January 2012 after more than 160 Division I schools objected and has had problems gaining momentum since then.
SEC commissioner Mike Slive upped the ante a bit last spring when he suggested that a $4,000-per-year ceiling could be placed on the "full cost of attendance" stipend, according to Robbie Andreu of The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun, and ESPN's Joe Schad reported in January that it's possible that the five power conferences could be granted autonomy on the subject, freeing them up from the lower-level Division I teams that would take a bigger financial hit by paying a stipend to all athletes.
Get this passed.
If you're concerned that the changing financial landscape could cause another split of Division I, don't be. We're heading down that road anyway. Now that football players are considered employees at Northwestern, the cost-of-attendance debate is now a secondary issue in that discussion. It's far more likely that the big-money schools within Division I would just play by a separate set of rules.
Paying players on an institutional level is a path loaded with hurdles and moving parts, so keep that aspect of the formula at a lower, sustainable level.
Fair Market Value
If players want to make money, let them do it on the individual level, regardless of sport.
If EA Sports wants to make a college football game and use real players in it, let them strike a deal to allow it (perhaps even through CAPA). If a Tallahassee car dealership wants Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston to become its spokesman, let him do it. If a local pizza joint wants Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper to appear in a commercial and other advertisements in exchange for a monthly stipend and free pizza, allow it.
It doesn't have to be exclusive to football. Different sports are popular on different campuses. If members of Kentucky's basketball team or Auburn's swim team can capitalize on their power, they should be allowed to.
Former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel would have reeled in endorsement deals from all over the world during his career, including apparel and memorabilia deals.
There could be conflict of interest in some cases since colleges also have their own apparel deals. If it becomes an issue, just tape over the logo on the field like other sports do.
How do you prevent a local business from overpaying for a player and creating an unfair recruiting advantage? You cap it. There could be tiered caps based on local, regional and national businesses; or just create one hard cap that limits what an athlete could earn in any given year. All deals would be subject to review by the NCAA or another governing body.
Where Does the Money Go?
The idea of multimillionaire 19-year-olds cruising around college campuses could rub some people the wrong way, even if they've earned it.
Put it in a trust fund.
Let the NCAA (or some other entity) manage the fund, and mandate that it is only accessible upon graduation. If you're good enough at your sport to make money off your name in college, let that money work for you for however long it takes you to graduate.
This would let players earn their true market value (and then some, if it's invested properly) while still keeping at least a theoretical framework of "amateur" athletics in place and creating a financial incentive to graduate.
Players would profit, amateurism would remain somewhat intact, and the "student" part of student-athlete would retain (and likely gain) relevance.
If a player wants money while in college, set a small percentage cap or limit that they can withdraw per season and make that taxable income. That way, players can get access to some of their hard-earned money for life, dates, food, etc. during their eligibility.
But What If a Player Leaves Early?
If a player leaves college early for the NFL, NBA or any other pro league, chances are he or she likely had the chance to make a few pennies off of his or her name while in college but is jumping for the big money of true professional athletics.
That's a great situation, because the college trust fund would act as an insurance policy as they chase their professional dreams. Some of their careers will tank, but they'd still have access to that trust fund if they finish their degrees and move on to the next step in their professional lives.
If a player wants to finish his or her degree at a different school, it wouldn't matter. The player earned that money himself or herself and should have access to it regardless of where he or she finishes a degree.
What Happens to Unclaimed Funds?
These trust funds would be non-transferable, with the player as the only beneficiary.
If the player doesn't fulfill his course requirements for whatever reason, or chooses to give back to the university that launched his or her athletic career, that money would go back to a general scholarship fund like any other donation to a general scholarship fund.
That would certainly make the NCAA and college presidents happy, because it would provide another revenue stream to the academic side, which has been rendered largely irrelevant in this discussion on paying players.
The subject of paying players is a complicated topic with a lot of moving parts. The decision by the NLRB to allow Northwestern football players to unionize only created more of them.
But it doesn't have to be complicated. Taking these steps would keep it relatively simple and provide a nice foundation to build off of.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report.
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