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It’s time we switch term for athletes to reflect reality


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It’s not time to strike the term “student-athlete” from the dictionary in describing football and basketball players at the NCAA’s major power conferences. It is time, though, to flip the phrase.

“Athlete-student” is a much more accurate and honest term.

After the NCAA’s loss in a major lawsuit and the Big 5 power conferences secession into a new governing body, college sports is now pro sports.

Whether that is good remains to be seen; without doubt, it was inevitable.

In a span of 24 hours, a federal judge ruled that the NCAA cannot prevent players from marketing their name and likeness. Shortly after, the Big 5 conferences — the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12, plus Notre Dame — were given “autonomy,” the ability to make their own economic rules.

What does this mean?

Players will be paid to play. It’s that simple, although the intricacies are much more complex.

In the lawsuit, a group of players led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon argued successfully that the NCAA violated antitrust law in not sharing television revenue with players.

That means Football Bowl Subdivision players and Division I basketball players who are on rosters for four years potentially could get no less than $20,000 when they leave school. The U.S. District Court Judge said she set the $5,000 annual threshold to balance the NCAA’s fears about huge payments to players.

Further rulings also may give individual stars more economic leverage. In simple terms, a player like IU guard Yogi Ferrell may be able to negotiate and get paid for appearing in a video game or for signing basketballs.

The more profound impact will be caused by the Big 5 rule, which will tilt the competitive landscape, especially in basketball.

The first step will be to award “full cost of attendance” stipends, which could be worth up to $5,000 to each football and basketball athlete.

Other new rules the biggest conferences could enact include loosened restrictions involving contact between players and agents, letting players pursue outside paid career opportunities and covering expenses for players’ families to attend postseason games. Areas that will not fall under the autonomy umbrella include postseason tournaments, transfer policies, scholarship limits, signing day and rules governing on-field play.

Less affluent conferences are permitted to do the same, but it is unlikely they can afford it.

Think of that in practical terms for a football player considering Big Ten Purdue versus Mid-American Conference Ball State, for instance. That additional money and perks from the Boilermakers will certainly affect the recruit’s decision.

Adam Smith must be smiling.

The father of modern American capitalism believed that we all act in our own economic self-interest in a manner that leads to the betterment of society. For years, the NCAA has resisted that economic principle.

The reasons have been as much altruistic—preserving a true amateur atmosphere—as paternalistic—stashing all the cash.

This is about economic forces that simply cannot be halted.

For one, I am dismayed at the trend that has eviscerated these amateur college sports, but I also appreciate that the undercurrent is a basic tenet of American capitalism.

College football and basketball command big dollars in today’s marketplace. The athletes are very much responsible for that economic clout. Just like a heart surgeon, Miley Cyrus or a hedge fund trader, those who create value in the value will be rewarded.

We may not always like it; we may not always agree with it; it is the economic principle upon our nation is created.

“Student-athlete” is a term now redefined. College football and basketball are professional sports in a very real sense.

In a society where stadiums are packed to watch college practices and athletes are local and national celebrities, the outcome is predictable. Indeed, anything less would be puzzling from the perspective of Adam Smith.

So, college athletes will be paid and the bigger conferences can now set their own rules.

When you get right down to it, given the economic clout they carry, nothing could be more American.

Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays in the Daily Journal. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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