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Thursday, October 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

George Nethercutt: College degree should be first priority for student-athletes

George Nethercutt

Now that California has passed a law (Fair Pay to Play law) providing in 2023 for the hiring of agents to negotiate payment of advertising for college athletes, expect other states to follow suit so that athletes and their colleges are not disadvantaged by California colleges and universities.

New laws should not shower college students with instant cash, but it’s complicated.

College athletes are encouraged to finish earning their degrees coupled with the full ride they accept with a college or university to trade the athlete’s prowess for full payment of tuition, books, room and board intended to confer a complete education that will allow the student-athlete an opportunity for future economic gain after the athlete’s sporting experience is finished. Each student-athlete would be able to market his or her name, image and likeness and “monetize that,” according to California’s governor. Only a small percentage of college athletes turn pro, and the student’s athletic achievement should be secondary to the education received.

As state legislatures, (currently North Carolina, Washington and Colorado) ponder the proper way to fashion payments in school to student-athletes in order to stay competitive with California’s recent action, legislators should couple payments to athletes with a mechanism that doesn’t destroy the existing scholarship program employed by most colleges. Having student-athletes complete their education should be paramount to money. Perhaps holding an athlete’s financial benefits in a university trust until after graduation would allow student-athletes to prosper financially while simultaneously providing for their educational future.

The fear is that scholarships would be dropped for all in favor of revenue sharing with colleges. This is in contrast to the millions paid to coaches and colleges that prosper off the sweat equity of athletes who make the coach and university look good, although the athlete under NCAA rule is not allowed to financially prosper as their coaches and university can.

Several coaches and colleges have argued against the new compensation rule, including Washington State football coach Mike Leach, who recently signed a reported $20 million contract extension, and Gonzaga Athletic Director Mike Roth.

Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney, who signed a $10 million per year coaching deal with Clemson, argues that “the collegiate model is a beautiful thing.” He opposes collegiate salaries because they would do away with the collegiate model. Though the NCAA makes about $1 billion each year, it has opposed the California law. Swinney believes that college athletes today have money, and that paying players would be “a train wreck.” Though Swinney grew up poor in Alabama, he tries to instill in his players that football “creates opportunities.”

Others have opined on the law. NBA superstar LeBron James endorses it. USA Today supports the California law. The Los Angeles Times supports the Pac-12 embracing the California law. The New York Times ran a story on the California law, stating that some universities make more than $100 million each year. The NCAA has formed a committee to study the issue.

There’s a further provision for legislators to consider if they’re looking for legislative measures to enact. The university could hold an athlete’s funds in trust until graduation or if the athlete turns pro after attending college; he/she would forfeit the trust fund to the university in favor of a pro salary.

In any event, the funds should be held in trust by the university for all student-athletes and the student’s scholarship should take priority, especially to assure completion of a college education. That may be a way to discourage student-athletes from adopting the “one-and-done” policy – attending one year of college and turning pro to take advantage of big money and the athlete’s good one-year record as some colleges have experienced. The athlete may earn big money, but soon, without a college degree, the athlete is adrift.

The Pay for Play California law has engendered strong feelings among fans, coaches, colleges and the NCAA, but change in compensation provisions for athletes was probably inevitable, considering the massive amounts of money earned by coaches and colleges. The best way for colleges and athletes to address the controversy is to embrace it thoughtfully and adopt legislation that will satisfy critics.

If, as Swinney and GU basketball coach Mark Few assert, today’s athletes have money and want for little, then putting endorsement money in trust and having an athlete forfeit college endorsement money if he/she turns pro and has substantial earnings makes good sense, recognizing that the student-athlete’s first priority should be getting a quality college education.

George Nethercutt represented the 5th Congressional District in Congress from 1995-2005. He is currently chairman of the nonprofit civics foundation that bears his name.

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