When Jim Harbaugh speaks, the college football world listens.
Not necessarily because everything he says has shock-jock quality. More so because Harbaugh is one of the most polarizing, influential figures in the sport.
Leave it to a member of the SeaGate Centre audience Thursday to help Harbaugh make his latest news. During a question-and-answer session at the Access for Justice awards dinner and fund-raiser in Toledo, the Michigan coach was asked if college players should be paid.
In a long, roundabout answer, he got to the yes or no portion.
“There’s no doubt that education is the whole ballgame,” Harbaugh said. “Something after high school is a must these days. It’s your most guaranteed way to have a successful future in today’s world. If you pay players, if you made them employees in college sports, then they’ll have to pay taxes. Would the scholarship become a taxable benefit? If he’s getting a $65,000 scholarship plus $30,000 or $40,000 a year, is the government going to look at that and say, ‘OK, now you owe us 40 percent in taxes?’ You may now have to pay more money than you actually make in the salary with taxes.
“No, I don't think [athletes should be paid].”
The topic is one that garners headlines whenever it’s discussed. And if you think our politics are divisive, controversial subjects in sports are no different, especially when it involves paying college athletes.
There is no perfect answer, but it feels inevitable some form of compensation will happen in the near future. It’s a complex subject that features tentacles off almost every question — How will the ‘have-nots’ be impacted? How will schools comply with Title IX? Will all sports be affected?
It’s currently a bottomless rabbit hole.
“I worry about making them employees,” Harbaugh said.
Players at Northwestern University in 2015 attempted to unionize with help from the National College Players Association, but the National Labor Relations Board chose not to exercise jurisdiction on the case.
The unanimous decision was a decisive victory for the college sports establishment, which hasn’t budged from its steadfast belief that intercollegiate athletics hinges on amateurism and classrooms, but did not specifically rule on whether college athletes should be considered university employees and thus able to collectively bargain.
“The door is still open,” said Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association.
For in-state students at the University of Michigan, annual expenses for tuition, housing, meals, supplies, and miscellaneous personal items is approximately $30,000. That number more than doubles to $65,000 for out-of-state students. The value of a scholarship is not lost on the athletes who receive them, nor is the amount of money that could be made off their likenesses.
The NCPA and Drexel University released a study titled The $6 Billion Heist: Robbing College Athletes Under the Guise of Amateurism, which found the average fair market value for an FBS football player is $137,357 per year and $289,031 for a men’s basketball player.
According to the study, the average lost value during a four-year career is $456,612 for a football player and $1,063,307 for a men’s basketball player, each of which are barred by NCAA rules from accepting more than the value of a scholarship — including endorsements or any other compensation for use of their names, images, or likenesses — for their talents.
“America’s economic system is supposed to operate on free markets,” former UCLA quarterback and current Green Bay Packers player Brett Hundley said. “This is a lesson on how damaging it can be when a cartel stifles a free market and, unfortunately, college athletes are the ones on the losing end. It’s not right.”
Michigan pays more than $1 million annually to its athletes in the form of cost-of-attendance stipends, which the NCAA began to allow in 2015 to bridge the gap between what athletic scholarships provide and the actual cost of going to school. But many see the playing field as still tilted unfairly away from college athletes.
“We are putting much more focus on their athletic endeavors than their academic endeavors,” said David Ridpath, associate professor of sport management at Ohio University and one of the leading voices in college athletics reform. “When you look at places like North Carolina and other scandals, education is even less than secondary. We’ve made our choice, and since that choice has been made, then the athletes should be compensated. If we want to fix it, we can certainly do that. But we can’t continue to play both sides of the fence here and say we’re professional in one way and amateur in the other.
“If we want to do the true valuation of a scholarship, and you take a $65,000 scholarship, it can be a very good deal if, indeed, that’s the focus of what the athlete — the student-athlete, as we say — is doing. But that’s not what we’re doing, by and large. Certainly not in many sports at the Division I level. It's become a mere afterthought. They’re spending 40 and 50 hours a week on their athletic endeavors, and they are certainly doing everything that makes them an employee.”
A unique idea Harbaugh presented was deferred compensation.
“I think that’s a possibility, and we’re exploring that right now,” he said.
The Amazon Prime documentary series featuring the Wolverines resulted in $2.25 million for the athletic department. UM is considering doing a second season in 2018, and Harbaugh mused here about his players’ ability to get deferred compensation or stock options for appearing in the series.
When the market closed Monday, Amazon stock — ticker symbol: AMZN — was trading at more than $1,600 per share.
“We don’t know if it would work,” Harbaugh said. “But we want to find out, and there’s only one way to find out and that’s to ask. Those will be questions for the NCAA.”
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