On a smoky day in the nation’s capital, scores of college athletics’ top minds converged not far from the White House at a first-of-its-kind conference. Hosted by the University of Arizona on June 8th, the Future of College Athletics summit attracted journalists, conference commissioners and student-athletes.
ESPN’s Paul Finebaum kicked off the festivities with a joke about Arizona joining the Big 12 that drew some nervous laughs from around the room.
“Next time someone asks what’s wrong with basketball, football…” Finebaum continued, “I can tell them I went to Washington and heard the solutions.”
After finishing a short monologue, Finebaum introduced the first panel of the day, headlined by NCAA President Charlie Baker. The head of college athletics’ governing body started off by addressing the elephant in the room: Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) policy.
Baker expressed regret that the NCAA seemingly missed its opportunity to make a framework for NIL deals when it had the chance. He argued Congress should now be responsible for fixing a system no one is happy about by legislating three key reforms. Baker called for a registry for NIL deals that would increase transparency, a certification process for agents and a uniform standard contract agreement to protect student-athletes.
From that point on, it was clear Baker had set out his talking points on NIL and did not intend to budge on them. Pushback soon came from CEO Amy Privette Perko of the Knight Commission, a student-athlete rights organization that often finds itself at odds with the NCAA. She called on Baker to fight for more equitable revenue-sharing in athletics.
The College Football Playoff (CFP) will soon make 2 billion dollars a year, Perko said, and yet the NCAA does not receive any of its profits to distribute to its member programs. The money flows directly to schools, where it goes disproportionately to coaches’ salaries. Today, nine schools spend more money on 11 football coaches than all of their players combined, and Perko claimed that number is projected to balloon to 21 schools in the next few years.
Baker, who has just passed his 100th day on the job, responded to Perko by maintaining the NCAA can’t do everything all at once. He wants the NCAA to focus on regulating sports betting and moving towards gender equity with NIL revenues first, before handling issues like the CFP later.
In the current legal environment for NIL, states operate under a patchwork of laws that incentivize a legislative “race to the bottom.” Schools lobby states to give them a competitive recruiting advantage, and other schools respond in turn. In California, the College Athlete Protection Act would require college sports teams to provide a share of their revenue directly to their athletes. President Baker believes it would be catastrophic for athletics in the state, wiping out all programs in Division III, most in Division II and some in Division I.
A lack of federal regulation has also led to a skewed economic landscape for female college athletes. Representatives from NIL collectives around the country estimated around 95% of their funds go towards male athletes, as their separation from universities allows them to dodge Title IX requirements. Walker Jones, Executive Director of the Ole Miss-affiliated collective The Grove, said organizations like his need regulation to fix this inequity. He added that student-athletes are generally better off under NIL than they were before, disagreeing with President Baker’s read of the terrain.
The average Division I football player receives 18k, the average starter gets 40k, and the average Power 5 basketball starter pulls in 70k. Jones added that despite being called Name, Image and Likeness deals, he estimates that around 90% of the funding they disburse to athletes comes directly from donors.
Coaches haven’t been shy about voicing their complaints with this new normal. Arizona football head coach Jedd Fisch spoke on an afternoon panel alongside former USC quarterback JT Daniels. Fisch worries about well-endowed programs drowning out teams like his in recruiting by outbidding them for the top-rated recruits. He proposed a number of reforms to stop this scenario, including a cap on spending and a two-year minimum stay requirement for players committed to play for a university.
While those reforms are unlikely to come to pass, everyone at the summit agreed on one thing: there has to be change. As Perko put it, these are the dog years of college sports, with 14 years of change crammed into the last two years. If the NCAA can’t keep up, it’s past time for someone who can to step in.