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Hook, Line and Sinker

By Tony Hooker
Name, Image and Likeness.
Three words that until a few years ago were random. Now, they’re all the rage, as Colleges and Universities begin to unravel the byzantine pathways toward paying athletes for their play, largely on their own while the NCAA stands by, mute, waiting on congress to make their decisions for them. 

At its face, the issue seems to be cut and dry. THE Ohio State University’s athletic programs brought in over 230 million dollars in 2019. That’s two hundred thirty…followed by six zeros. For one year of athletic performance.  Of course, all this largesse isn’t sitting in a vault somewhere so Gene Smith can do his best Scrooge McDuck impression, although the thought of Justin Fields backstroking through a swimming pool filled with gold coins is an appropriate visual given the contract he just signed with the Bears. It’s used to pay thousands of salaries for coaches, administrators and staff. It’s used for scholarships and meals for the athletes. It’s used for improvements to facilities and grounds. It’s used to provide support for all the ancillary positions that big time athletics require, to put it frankly.

It’s also used to support programs which cannot generate the funds needed to support themselves. It’s no secret that for most Division I athletic programs, Football is the main driver of funding for the entire operation, with Men’s basketball also a contributor. All other sports are funded by these two, for the most part. That’s why it’s so important that schools that want to be big time have to have successful football programs. That’s what makes the job Josh Whitman has done at Illinois so amazing. Even while the football team has struggled, he’s been putting together incredible fundraising efforts for capital improvements across the board. 

But, as the superb Robert Rosenthal recently pointed out on his illiniboard.com page, what happens when some of the revenue is potentially diverted from those cash cow sports to the athletes themselves? Does the spigot stop flowing to the men’s rowing team or women’s lacrosse squad in order for the gridders to be compensated? I think that issues like this will be worked out, and of course NIL is really about student athletes’ ability to profit from their fame on a local level, for the most part. Only the true superstars of the sports will be able to nick the national market. 

Then again, there are those who say that the scholarship, along with room and board, should be sufficient pay for athletes, and there is some merit there. It’s hard, however, to quantify the value of a degree when you’re making hundreds of millions for alma mater. Another not so secret dirty little secret is that many athletes elect to take less stringent majors than many of their peers, and these degrees might not be as marketable as other majors upon graduation. There are many, many student athletes who use their skills on the field of endeavor to fund their academic dreams. As the commercials point out, a huge percentage of NCAA student athletes will be professionals in field other than sports. There are also athletes who believe that their only pathway to a successful life is on the football field or basketball court. What happens when it doesn’t happen and they’re left with no degree or a degree that’s not as marketable as others? I know that some will say that outcomes like that are a consequence of their decisions, and it’s true. It’s also true that college athletes have a level of commitment to their sport, including thousands of hours of practice and workouts, that make it impossible for most of them to chase more aggressive academic pursuits. It’s a very complicated issue, to be sure, and I’m glad that I don’t have to figure it out. All I can do is cheer for Alma and trust that UI is in good hands. Go Illini!

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