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The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

Student-Athlete or Athlete-Student? Are Changes in the NCAA Eroding the Key Qualities of the League?

As the NCAA changes its rules and more closely resembles a professional league, questions linger about whether or not these new rules change the purpose of the league.
Crowds pour into the stadium from a tailgate at an Iowa football game. College football gameday in America routinely pulls in massive crowds, with ticket prices for top games at up to $500. (Phil Roeder from Des Moines, IA, USA, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

Packed stadiums, day long T.V. coverage, and hordes of devotee fans ready to spend a whole day rooting for their team. This sounds like a professional league, doesn’t it? But in the United States, college football is king. At big powerhouse schools, it’s almost a business. At the University of Alabama, head coach Nick Saban and his team brought in $130.87 million in 2022 alone. Ticket sales, merchandising, and television deals draw millions in revenue, which goes into the pockets of the university.

Historically, that has been where the financial partnership ends. The sports money goes to the school, and the school funds the teams. I asked my dad one day how many of the players on the field during college football game day were paying a cent to attend school; he said, “likely none.” Fully covered room and board has always been reward enough for playing games in front of a packed stadium. But somewhere in the recent past, coaches’ salaries have skyrocketed. Nick Saban of Alabama makes roughly $11 million per year, and as of 2022, he was the highest paid coach in the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), with his peers not being far behind.  

That’s when the question of athlete compensation really came into play. If the coaches are getting paid these exorbitant sums, why aren’t the players — the ones actually out on the field scoring — getting any of it? The NCAA prides itself (or at least used to) on its athletes amateur status. High school runners were told not to accept prize money from community road races for the risk of damaging that status, but now, things are changing.

In June 2021, the NCAA began to allow compensation, or NIL deals for collegiate athletes. NIL stands for name, image, and likeness, and essentially allows athletes to accept brand deals and profit off their names, images, and likenesses (as the name implies). Athletes can be in ads, promote brands on their social medias, and essentially be sponsored — all while still in college. 

These deals drew controversy from day one. When Alabama’s quarterback Bryce Young was bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars from NIL deals before he stepped foot on the field for the first time, people were skeptical. Sure he had been successful in high school, but there was no knowing how he would hold up in the NCAA, or how many of those thousands he would truly earn.

NIL money often relies more on star power than necessarily on talent. Big names have larger social media followings and built-in fan bases. Football and men’s basketball players for the most part have the largest NIL deals, due to the large TV markets for these college sports. Quarterbacks become household names before they sign a professional contract, and Heisman Trophy winners star in commercials. This reliance on star power comes into clearer focus when you look at the top earners within these high profile sports. The top two earners, Arch Manning (Texas) and Shedeur Sanders (Colorado), are both sons of football dynasty families. Both are talented football players in their own right, but it’s not a difficult stretch of the imagination to assume their family names may have something to do with it.

This money, while concentrated in high profile sports, certainly isn’t exclusive to football. Livvy Dunne is a gymnast from LSU. She has gained popularity online, with 4.4 million followers on Instagram and over 7 million on TikTok, which have translated into massive brand deals. Her NIL deals are valued at $3.3 million, with brands like American Eagle and Vuori, along with her Sports Illustrated modeling, bring her fame that collegiate women’s gymnastics have historically never had.

Women’s sports remain under-resourced. Title 9, the 1972 law against gender-based discrimination in schools, is supposed to guarantee equal funding for women on the collegiate level, mandating equal scholarships and opportunities for male and female athletes across all divisions. While technically mandated, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that women’s teams rarely get the same star treatment that men’s teams do. In 2021, March Madness was held in a “bubble,” where all participating athletes were kept in one facility for the entire length of the tournament in order to prevent COVID-19 infections. The bubble revealed stark differences between the treatment of women’s teams and men’s teams, from elaborate meals to swag bags to fully outfitted weight rooms (or a lack thereof), despite the Title 9 protections that are supposed to enforce equal treatment.

NIL deals, while often concentrated on high profile male athletes, may bridge this gap. NCAA women’s basketball standouts Paige Bueckers and Angel Reese are among the top female earners, and while they may not get the same media attention as their male counterparts, their NILs offer compensation on a similar level to that of men. Social media stars, like the Cavinder twins (two UMiami basketball players with 4.5 million followers) also tend to rake in deals and payment, offering high level female players another avenue for compensation.

These deals were expected to stay confined to the NCAA. But brands like Nike and New Balance have begun to tap into a younger market: high school athletes. At Bronx Science, I run track and cross country and follow a couple of track news accounts on Instagram; one day, about a month ago, I happened upon a post announcing NIL deals for a few of the sport’s current big high school stars. They joined Oregon high school senior Mia Brahe-Peterson and her Nike NIL as the only high schoolers with compensation deals with major brands, and have left people with even more questions about the role of these deals. 

On top of NIL deals, the NCAA also recently changed their rules around transferring schools. Traditionally, athletes have been incentivized to remain at the school they originally committed to. Transferring schools used to force a year of sitting out — if I transferred schools between my freshman and sophomore years, I would have had to take sophomore year off, and come back to competition as a junior. 

In 2021, along with the NIL ruling, that rule changed. Now, athletes can bounce from school to school, program to program, without taking that year off. The impacts have already been felt. Southern California distance running standout Samantha McDonnell signed with the University of Alabama out of high school. By the end of her freshman year, that had changed — twice. First, in January 2023, she returned home, hopping into the transfer portal and out again at UCLA. Then, she made another switch, this time to the University of Oregon. Under the old rules, McDonnell would have had to sit out two years for these transfers; now, she is able to run and compete without interruption.

For athletes like McDonnell, these new rules are good. She’s been able to find the program that fits her, and where she feels supported as an athlete. She went to UCLA because (allegedly) her high school coach took a job there, then left because he lost the job. In other cases, this new ease in transferring has turned flailing programs around, turning these amateur sports into something resembling a professional league.

This year, Deion Sanders (also known as Coach Prime, or Prime Time), a former NFL and MLB star, took the head coaching job at the University of Colorado-Boulder. During the 2022 season, Colorado went 1-11, finishing dead last in their conference. In the offseason, Sanders got to work on the transfer portal. He cut dozens of athletes from the existing Colorado team, and brought in an almost entirely new roster. While great for Colorado’s new roster, tens of athletes who Sanders cut lost their team, scholarship, and (likely) the reason they picked CU Boulder in the first place. 

To the crowds at a Colorado game, these efforts seemed to pay off in the first weeks of the college football season, as the team won four of their first seven games. After a painful last season, Colorado football has become a must-watch for college football fans. 

But due to these changes in rules, the league that Colorado is rapidly improving within won’t exist for much longer. For years, the Colorado Buffaloes have competed in the Pac-12 conference, along with schools like USC, UCLA, Washington, Oregon, Stanford, and Cal Berkeley. Conferences are, theoretically, set up geographically. The majority of a team’s games are against their league opponents, and in order to minimize travel time for student-athletes, it makes sense for them to mainly play games nearby. Leagues range in size, depth of talent, and stability (how long teams stay in them, how often new ones join), and the majority of powerhouse teams are in a small handful, known as the Power 5 conferences.

The Pac-12 is one of those Power 5 conferences, but its teams are jumping ship for others anyways. USC, UCLA, Oregon, and Washington plan to leave for the Big 12 (which will now have 18 teams in it), and Cal Berkeley and Stanford are leaving for the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference). If these changes don’t seem like they make any sense, it’s because they really don’t. Two California powerhouses are joining a league made up of teams across the country, and a league named after its 12 teams is adding numbers 15, 16, 17, and 18. 

Ultimately, league shifts come back to money. College football garners big TV deals, because so many people watch it. Deals are signed by the conference, so schools flock to the leagues offering them the best slice of that money. Football pays, and schools with strong teams have to try to make the most of that to generate revenue.

While it might be good for the school, these conference shifts could have net negative impacts on the student athletes themselves. Take Stanford for instance. When they fully join the ACC, their teams will have an outsized portion of their games on the East Coast. Whole teams will have to fly cross country for these games, losing a significant amount of class time. In making these choices, the schools are essentially prioritizing profit over the student athletes who make up the program.

The monetization of college sports in the NCAA isn’t 100% positive or negative. Giving these athletes the ability to earn money for their hard work might help keep them in school and ensure they have a backup plan when it’s inevitably time to hang up the uniform. But treating programs that are meant to be for education first and athletics second like a smaller version of the professional leagues is bound to drop retention rates and disrupt the educations of these students. Ultimately the athletes are the ones most impacted by any decisions the league makes, which is a double edged sword. A student playing basketball on an athletic scholarship in a Power 5 conference stands to gain so much such as sponsorship deals and a free college education. But, given the rate at which things have been changing in the NCAA, they also stand to lose so much of that, if the league makes another big decision. 

There’s no decision that can be made that will satisfy everyone, but the NCAA organization and the schools that make it up need to put the needs of their athletes first, above the financial impacts their choices might have. Without the athletes, the league cannot exist.

If the coaches are getting paid these exorbitant sums, why aren’t the players — the ones actually out on the field scoring — getting any of it?

About the Contributor
Lily Zufall, Staff Reporter
Lily Zufall is an Editor-in-Chief of ‘The Science Survey.’ To her, the most appealing part of journalistic writing is being able to walk the line between strictly informational writing and creative stories. Her favorite stories have been ones that allow her to explore New York City and do deep dives on small topics that interest her.  She is a part of the track and cross country teams at Bronx Science, and participates in the biology research program. After high school, Lily hopes to pursue something in the environmental sciences, where she is hopefully able to use the writing skills she has learned on staff of ‘The Science Survey’ in conjunction with the other things she will learn.