Fair Pay to Play Isn’t Just About College

On September 30, 2019, California passed the Fair Pay to Play Act allowing college athletes to earn money off their Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) and hire an agent while maintaining their college eligibility, starting in 2023. The NCAA, while at first criticizing this decision, has now embraced it. Sort of.

Sports and business (e.g. money) are tightly linked. Sometimes like peanut butter and jelly, and other times like oil and water. Curt Flood’s lawsuit for free agency, Ed O’Bannon’s antitrust case for the NCAA’s commercial use of former athlete images, Northwestern athletes’ attempt to be classified as employees, and now California’s legislation are pivotal examples within my lifetime. During this time, sports revenue and player contracts have risen dramatically. The NFL achieved $16 billion in revenue this past year, the NCAA now reports over $1 billion in revenue, twenty-seven colleges and universities generate more than $100 million per year, and Mike Trout recently signed a 12-year contract worth $430 million.

Meanwhile, for the rest of us

“Average Americans can only wish they had the salary inflation enjoyed by pro sports figures. The median U.S. household income in 1985 (meaning half were higher, half lower) was $23,618, according to the Census Bureau. By 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available, it had more than doubled to $49,777, but that simply kept household incomes on par with inflation over that span. In contrast, Greinke’s average salary is more than 20 times the $1.2 million Fernando Valenzuela earned pitching for the Dodgers in 1985. Just think: If all Americans’ incomes had soared that much, the median U.S. household income would now be $472,360.” LA Times.

Alongside this sports revenue boom, college expenses have risen at equally high levels. Since my birth year, 1969, according to the National Center for Education Statistics and The College Board, “the average annual cost of a four-year public school has soared 3,009 percent. The average annual cost of a four-year private school has jumped 2,310 percent. Today, the average American needs to earn about $22,000 more than the current median income to afford college.” To pay for this, student debt has reached a record of $1.5 trillion.

How does Fair Pay to Play and these economics affect youth sports?

Youth sports is big business, estimated at $15 billion per year serving some 40 million athletes. The rise of college costs, the fierce competition of college admissions, and the perceived economic opportunities motivate families to spend significant amounts on their kids’ sports. The consequences? Less accessibility to key opportunities like travel sports teams for those less fortunate, more pressure on young athletes to deliver ROI to their families, higher quitting rates at an earlier age, and repetitive stress injuries due to year-round specialization and over-use. 

Yet despite the focus and hard pushing, the percentage likelihood of playing at the next level is remarkably low. Of the 40 million kids, approximately 18% will play high school athletics, 1.2% NCAA athletics, and 0.02% professional, whereby “professional” means just getting drafted, let alone making the team and signing a contract.

The benefit of NIL rights and eventually pay-to-play is that a select number of scholarship and non-scholarship athletes will be able to attain money for important expenses such as tuition, books, rent, food, travel, and family support. In many cases, college may be the single best opportunity for athletes to profit from their name. For youth sports, however, NIL draws even more attention to the pot of gold while the likelihood of attaining it remains incredibly slim.

What can be done?

California’s Fair Pay to Play Act is a good thing as it allows athletes the chance to earn legitimate and deserved money. Those with an opportunity of playing at the professional level can hire an agent to help evaluate the all-important “stay or go” decision. There will be abuses. There will be bad actors. Oversight and education are required. It sounds a lot like the system we have today. For too long though, the NCAA and its member schools, brands, and broadcasters have earned huge sums on the backs of athletes without evolving the total compensation system. It’s their own fault, driven by greed, commitment to the status quo, and the weakness of the NCAA. Whenever the Government feels compelled to step in, as with this case, you know that negative forces have taken advantage of a situation for too long.

So, if college athletes earning money is the new normal, here are a few suggestions taken from my research that could limit the negative effect on youth sports.

Rethink and increase funding by professional sports organizations and teams, USA governing bodies, the NCAA, and brands (e.g. Nike, Under Armour, Dicks Sporting Goods, NBC) supporting youth participation. Examples of existing funding vehicles include Little League International’s Grow The Game Grants, NBA Cares, MLB Community, NFL Foundation, Nike’s Global Community Impact, and the NCAA’s scholarships and grants.

Continually educate families on the value of a college degree, which as reported by the Census Bureau in 2018, nearly doubles one’s earning potential. Put as much emphasis (if not more) on education as we do on sports.

Workers 18 and over sporting bachelors degrees earn an average of $51,206 a year, while those with a high school diploma earn $27,915. But wait, there’s more. Workers with an advanced degree make an average of $74,602, and those without a high school diploma average $18,734.” 

The percentage likelihood of graduating college is much better than the likelihood of playing professional sports. According to the US Department of Education, “The official four-year graduation rate for students attending public colleges and universities is 33.3%. The six-year rate is 57.6%. At private colleges and universities, the four-year graduation rate is 52.8%, and 65.4% earn a degree in six years.” To reiterate, a mere 1.2% play NCAA athletics, and only 0.02% are selected into professional leagues.

Train the coaches. According to the Positive Coaching Alliance, just 20% of youth coaches receive training, and many of the training programs that do exist are extremely limited in scope.  A comprehensive training curriculum would include how to coach that specific sport, coaching philosophies and techniques, health and safety, dealing with parents and families, and the psychology of kids. Professional leagues and the NCAA should fund this.

Encourage multiple sports and educate on the benefits of cross-training. In his book Any Given Monday, Dr. James Andrews reports that “almost 40 percent of all sports injuries seen in the Emergency Room are for children under the age of fourteen, and overuse is the cause of nearly half of all adolescent sports injuries.” A more aggressive stance is to formally restrict the amount of time a young athlete can dedicate to a single sport within a calendar year until high school. This is similar to NCAA restrictions re: the number of hours per week an athlete is allowed to spend on a sport, applied with the intent of reducing injury.

One way to enforce a restriction is to require athletes to register and maintain a profile with a national database to qualify for sports activities. Someone would have to fund and maintain such a database (e.g. professional leagues and the NCAA).

Bring back the fun. According to the Aspen Institute, “lack of fun” is the most commonly cited reason for kids quitting. 

Certainly, heightened competition and costs are other reasons as kids get older, but it’s important to acknowledge the fun component. Sports offer an amazing path to learn life lessons such as leadership, resilience, sportsmanship, growth mindset, respect, and teamwork. And it’s a great time to have fun! 

Elevate awareness on the health benefits of physical activity, regardless of sport. Developing habits for a healthy lifestyle (nutrition + exercise) should be a primary objective as added life lessons. Sports specialization and year-round commitments, especially at these younger ages, have ramifications such as burn-out, quitting, and an increase in the chance of injury, resulting in less physical activity overall.

The Aspen Institute’s Project Play and Positive Coaching Alliance offer many practical and powerful ideas and resources to help. I encourage you to check them out. I haven’t seen commentary about how NIL legislation will impact the broader ecosystem of sports, especially at the youth (pre-college) level. If you, or if you know of others who have experience, an opinion, or research on the topic, I would very much welcome the conversation! 


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