The NCAA’s proposal to pay college athletes is fair. That’s the problem.

Carson Beck (#15) and Sedrick Van Pran (#77) prior to the snap during a game between University of Georgia and University of Alabama at Mercedes Benz Stadium on December 2, 2023, in Atlanta, Georgia.

There are many things that are unique about the United States of America, like our love of guns, really big cars, and archaic systems for electing a president. But one that tends to get overlooked is our love of college sports. And do we ever love them.

There are over 520,000 college athletes in the US, playing for nearly 20,000 separate teams in more than 20 different sports. College athletics as a whole produce $13.6 billion in revenue, more than any other professional team sport save the gargantuan NFL, while the nearly 200,000 athletic scholarships given each year are worth the equivalent of some $4 billion. In 43 out of 50 US states, a college coach for a big-time team at a top state university — a job that can easily pay eight figures — is that state’s highest-paid public employee.

That’s just money. Sports play a role in shaping the American college experience — including who gets in and who doesn’t, even at our most selective schools — that is unimaginable outside the US, where university sports are a sideshow at best. 

And all this sits atop an essential contradiction: This entire commercial enterprise, this massive generator of alumni donations and TV rights, is all meant to be amateur. Just athletes playing for the love of the game and maybe a free college education, often struggling to get by or even feed themselves — even as a single top college football team like the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide can bring in more than $120 million a year. You don’t get any more American than that.

Except, possibly, for this: That contradiction is finally on its way to being resolved, through a multibillion-dollar courtroom settlement.

Show them the money

Last Thursday, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and what are known as the Power Five college athletic conferences — the leagues with the biggest college football teams — reached an agreement that would for the first time allow colleges to pay athletes directly. (College athletes can now legally make money indirectly, after a Supreme Court decision in 2021 forced the NCAA to allow them to be compensated by businesses for the use of their name or likeness, but the NCAA still prohibited colleges from paying them directly.)

The agreement, largely in response to the class-action lawsuit House vs. NCAA, still needs to be approved by the federal judge overseeing the case. But should it go forward, it would represent a fundamental change to how college athletics operates, solving one contradiction while potentially creating a host of other challenges.

The proposed settlement would distribute some $2.75 billion from the NCAA and schools to college athletes who played before July 2021, when the door was opened to name and likeness compensation. The settlement would also create a revenue-sharing model that would allow schools in the Power Five conferences to contribute around $20 million a year to athletes. (The Power Five are, for those who don’t wake up each fall Saturday morning to College Gameday, the ACC, the Big 10, the Big 12, the Pac-12, and the SEC.) Schools outside those conferences may eventually be able to opt into the model as well.

That’s what we know — but there’s far more that we don’t. It’s not clear which athletes will be paid, or how much. We don’t know if there will be a move to pay female athletes equally with male athletes. (Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in any school that receives federal funds — which is the vast majority of them — but it’s not clear whether that means a female athlete should receive the same compensation as a male player for football or basketball teams, which often bring in far more revenue.) 

And then there’s the broader question of what it will mean to bring the logic of the marketplace to the world of college athletics. Alabama already budgets more than $80 million to its football team each year, more than twice that of perennial SEC doormat Mississippi State. (Apologies, Bulldog fans.) If Alabama and its legions of deep-pocketed boosters can now pay players directly, an already uneven playing field is going to become positively vertical.

The rich get richer

There’s no doubt that something major needed to change with big-time college athletics. A world where some of the best athletes in America had to labor full-time before national TV audiences for coaches making seven or even eight figures, generating millions for their schools while getting no compensation in return, was untenable. (Yes, they receive a free college education, but for the best of the best, that’s hardly a fair return, even assuming you have time to go to class when you’re practicing over 40 hours a week.) For too many athletes on too many teams, amateurism was their schools’ convenient fiction that allowed millions to be made on their backs.

But while cold, hard capitalism is probably an upgrade over NCAA hypocrisy, the guardians of college sports may have solved one problem while creating more. Beyond further harming competitive balance in money-generating sports like basketball or football, the deal could ultimately hurt athletes in non-revenue-generating sports, which is the vast majority of them. (That includes many colleges’ football and basketball programs — only a little more than half of the teams in those sports are profitable.)

It’s not hard to imagine a future where colleges below the top schools, which are already feeling pressure from declining enrollment and government support, make the decision to cut sports in a more market-driven environment. Sure, a wrestling team may play a part in a school spirit, but if forced to put a price on it, would the average college be willing to pay it?

In the end, we’re likely to see the rich get richer in college sports — which will make it that much more American.

This story originally appeared in Today, Explained, Vox’s flagship daily newsletter. Sign up here for future editions.

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