College sports will prosper still if ‘pay-for-play’ becomes reality

What’s good for athletes isn’t bad for schools
The championship logo is seen on the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium before the NCAA college football playoff championship game between Georgia and Alabama, Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Credit: David Goldman

Credit: David Goldman

The championship logo is seen on the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium before the NCAA college football playoff championship game between Georgia and Alabama, Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Now that NCAA schools have agreed to pay athletes, you’re going to hear a lot of administrators say that necessarily means cutting sports programs. You’re going to hear a lot of fans say they’ll stop watching college sports if the athletes are paid salaries. You will see and hear a lot of media making the same predictions.

Don’t believe them.

College sports will continue to prosper if athletes are paid directly by schools, just as they’ve prospered when athletes are paid indirectly. “Pay-for-play” (known as “paid for work” in every other industry) will be a reality if the lawsuit settlement reached on Thursday is ultimately approved. The deal reached with plaintiffs by the NCAA and Power Five schools includes up to $20 million in payments to athletes per school.

Finally, college athletes have a chance to get a bigger piece of the pie that exists only because of their labor and marketing power. They can share in the media-rights revenue that has increased exponentially because people pay to watch them work. Ultimately, everyone will see that what’s good for athletes isn’t bad for college sports.

NCAA schools long have argued that they must be allowed to steal money from athletes. They insisted collusion is a necessary element of their business model. Programs wouldn’t be able to afford to pay salaries to athletes. Fans would lose interest in college sports if they became “pay-for-play.”

Anti-labor courts bought those absurd arguments for decades. But then the legal tide (and public opinion) suddenly turned against the NCAA’s sham “amateur model” in the past three years. College sports officials finally realized that they’d have to pay athletes something before the courts forced them to pay them a lot more as employees in a free market.

That’s why the people who have long resisted direct payments to athletes are giving in. College sports administrators know that’s not the real existential threat to their business. That would be losing tens of billions of dollars in an antitrust suit because they continue to collude not to pay them.

So, those officials agreed to pay $2.7 billion in damages to current and past Division I athletes now and share some revenue to avoid a ruinous judgment in the future. Those schools can afford it. They’ll just have to make long overdue changes to how the money is distributed from the revenue pot.

Salaries for coaches and staff have exploded in college sports. The spending on facilities also continues to escalate. That trend isn’t limited to the big-time programs. All Division I schools have paid the price. Some pay a lot more than others. That’s why, for example, Georgia State football can’t compete with Georgia.

We’ll see the same pattern if players are paid salaries. Some schools will pay up to the $20 million cap, and some won’t. The big difference is the $20 million cap would give Group of Five schools a better chance to compete for player talent. They can’t keep up with the uncapped spending of Power Five programs on coaches, staff, facilities, recruiting, etc.

Fans won’t abandon college sports because players are making salaries. Everyone knows schools always have paid athletes one way or another. There’s a long history of under-the-table payments to players. College sports raked in even more money as those “pay-for-play” scandals touched nearly all the top programs.

The NCAA’s money train also hasn’t been slowed by name, image and likeness deals for athletes. Those third-party payments aren’t supposed to be used as recruiting inducements, but everybody knows they are. The public knowledge that players are paid for their work has done nothing to hurt the popularity of college sports.

According to Nielsen, the 2023-24 college football regular season was the most watched ever based on viewing time. The same was true for the 2023-24 college basketball regular season (men’s and women’s) and March Madness tournament. Viewership for the 2024 College Football Playoff was the highest since 2018 and viewership for the New Year’s Six bowls was the highest since 2019.

Imagine how many people would watch the games if NIL and the transfer portal hadn’t ruined college sports.

Paying the players won’t stop millions of fans from attending college sports games and watching them on television. Football and basketball will remain popular moneymakers. Schools facing a budget crunch will have to change their spending priorities. They can start by cutting the fat from their athletics departments, then shift payments from their less valuable employees to the athletes who drive the revenue.

A judge still must sign off on the lawsuit settlement. If that happens, it wouldn’t move forward if most of the affected athletes choose to opt out. They should consider doing so because accepting the agreement comes with the big cost of undermining efforts to be classified as employees. The settlement requires athletes to give up their right to file future antitrust lawsuits (legal analysts say that’s one reason why Judge Claudia Wilken may reject the agreement).

Class-action suits have been the main mechanism that’s forced NCAA schools to allow NIL payments, full cost-of-attendance scholarships and now direct payments to players. If the settlement is approved, then athletes who want to sue the NCAA on antitrust grounds would have to go out on their own. The damages from such cases would be much smaller than with class-action suits. Attorneys would have less incentive to take the case unless they can recruit lots of athletes to join.

The settlement agreement gives athletes the right to object to it annually. But Jeffrey Kessler, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told CBS Sports that “those objections are almost never granted” by courts. So, by agreeing to the settlement college athletes essentially would be abandoning what’s been their most effective mechanism for winning labor rights.

Kessler said he’s confident the judge will approve the settlement and that athletes will opt in. I’m sure he’s right about the second part. It will be difficult for athletes to turn down cash now to leave open the possibility that they (and future athletes) can continue to fight for full rights as workers. They likely jump at the opportunity to become the first college athletes to be paid directly by schools.

“I’m hugely proud,” Steve Berman, co-lead counsel for the athletes, told ESPN. “This is a revolutionary change I never thought would happen when I started this.”

This revolutionary development for athletes will not topple college sports. Far from it. College sports will continue to thrive if players are paid. The only real difference will be that the people who are the labor and the product will get more of the revenue they generate.