Colby Cosh: For American student-athletes, it pays to not be a pro

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According to recent NCAA rule changes, college football has the potential to be more financially appealing than professional leagues such as the NFL or CFL for certain players. This development was examined in an article published by David Fahrenthold, a specialist in nonprofit affairs at the New York Times. The new “name, image, and likeness” (NIL) economy has rapidly transformed American college sports, particularly football. It wasn’t long ago that the United States Supreme Court delivered a significant antitrust ruling against the NCAA, which had upheld amateur principles in collegiate competition for a century.

However, the landscape has shifted dramatically. Universities and coaches have been able to generate massive profits from televised football and basketball games, making football coaches the highest-paid public servants in most U.S. states. Still, the student-athletes who contribute to these lucrative programs were historically barred from profiting off their own fame through personal merchandise sales or commercial endorsements.

Recognizing the need for change, the NCAA altered its rules to allow student-athletes to benefit from their own “name, image, and likeness.” While there are still restrictions against schools directly paying players salaries, a substantial influx of money has flowed into college sports through NIL channels. Estimates suggest that in 2023 alone, approximately $100 million has been generated, with top players on major college football teams now earning six-figure incomes.

Despite this rapid increase, Fahrenthold’s investigation reveals that the current situation may be temporary, as it exploits regulatory loopholes. At present, most NIL funds are funneled through charities that were typically established before these changes. This allows wealthy alumni to claim tax exemptions while paying student-athletes nominal amounts for promotional work or volunteering. Nevertheless, it is expected that the Internal Revenue Service will eventually step in to address these questionable “charities.”

Nonetheless, the abandonment of amateurism by the NCAA has led to an unusual situation where college football is more financially enticing than the NFL for certain players. While NFL players are subject to a salary cap and limited to 32 teams, college football stars can currently earn unlimited amounts through endorsements or support from wealthy alumni and social media. The Canadian Football League (CFL), which has traditionally served as an alternative path for players rejected by the NFL, will need to carefully consider the implications of this sudden shift in order to remain competitive within a rapidly expanding “professional” landscape.

Fahrenthold’s assessment also includes comments from a manager of alumni donor collectives, who describes the NIL era as “the greatest wealth redistribution in the history of the United States next to Social Security and welfare.” While this statement may be exaggerated, there is no denying that numerous low-income Black students now have access to a college experience previously reserved for the elite. This newfound financial stability empowers them to potentially delay or forgo professional football careers. In the meantime, they can pursue a subsidized college education over an extended period of five or six years.

It is hard not to empathize with past generations of players who were withheld from experiencing this type of freedom and financial security, as they could only generate income for others due to long-standing superstitions surrounding amateurism.

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