Fair pay to play: The Big Ten takes on college athletics' most pressing issue

Wednesday, October 2, 2019 - 9:24pm

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Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

ROSEMONT, Ill. — On Monday, the college athletics world was rocked to its core.

California Gov. Gavin Newsome signed a bill into law that, starting in 2023, allows college athletes to benefit off their name, image and likeness (NIL). It’s the beginning of the payoff of a social movement that rallied professional and amateur athletes alike to push for the right of athletes to benefit off the name on the back of their jersey, as well as the name on the front.

So it’s no doubt that this issue cast a large shadow over Big Ten Media Day on Wednesday. With the ground shifting beneath their feet, coaches from programs both big and small were quick to get ahead of the issue and take a stance on the topic.

Some chose to champion the issue. Some chose to plead ignorance. But none outwardly said the move was bad for the world of collegiate athletics and all that universities do for their players. That is, except Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney.

His argument rests on the back of a claim that with only 1 or 2 percent of college athletes likely to profit from this new rule, why spoil the fun for the rest of the field? Kicking off the day’s festivities with his opinion on the issue, Delaney argued that the sport of basketball takes place in many environments, some of which pay their players and some of which do not. The Big Ten and the NCAA do not.

“We’re not perfect,” Delaney said, “but I think that the opportunities that we have for the great many shouldn’t be sacrificed to the one percent who would probably have an opportunity to benefit here.

"It’s a college game. It’s different than the NBA, different than the Olympics and different than the playground. So I think that we’re able to maintain the opportunities that we have for men and women and avoid pay-for-play so far as we can.”

As it stands now, the California bill would not limit the opportunities for the majority of college athletes who won't have a shot to profit off their likeness. So how this new law might potentially take away from these athletes in the Big Ten remains unclear, but one thing is: the door to NIL profits for college athletes has been opened.

With this development comes many concerns for coaches outside the state of California. Now that student athletes in the sunshine state may have the opportunity to net extra profits, any recruit with NBA aspirations and common sense will make a mad dash out west. The question now turns to leveling the playing field.

“I think there’s still ways we need to learn because we do have to keep this on a level playing field,” said Penn State coach Pat Chambers, “because if it gets out of whack, well we’re gonna lose out because of recruiting when it comes to being competitive in the Big Ten and across the country.”

For many athletes and coaches, the question is about fairness.

What do you imagine when you think of the traditional college athlete? A pimple-faced teenager struggling to handle both transition defense and introductory biology? Perhaps. What about a married, father of two with bills to pay, mouths to feed and a whole course load to balance? If that doesn’t sound right, then meet Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman.

When discussing the issue of pay to play, Tillman was quick to admit that a few extra dollars in his pocket would go a long way in filling the gaps his scholarship can’t quite cover towards expenses such as child care. The junior also posited that the California ruling could aid NBA-bound players in navigating the business end of things surrounding monetizing a player’s athletic ability.

“I think it’s good just to educate NBA prospects or college players who have the potential to play in the NBA,” Tillman said. “To educate them on business decisions and stuff like that when they go to the NBA Draft, so it’ll be kind of nice for them.”

Other players, like Penn State’s Lamar Stevens, thinks it’s just flat-out wrong that others, such as colleges and administrators, are profiting off a college athlete’s name and face – especially when that athlete may be struggling. Michigan junior forward Isaiah Livers echoed this sentiment, arguing that college players don’t have other opportunities to earn cash, so this new development will be welcomed by those struggling to make ends meet.

“At a time when you literally have to spend money on your rent, those are the things you’re thinking about,” Livers said. “You can’t spend this money because you have to save it for something that has to be paid for, and it’s kind of dangerous like, ‘Man, I don’t have the money to eat.’ You have to go to a dorm and have someone let you in, go get East Quad or South Quad food, and it’s sad man.”

Joining Tillman and Livers, there were several Big Ten coaches who voiced active encouragement of the ruling despite potentially disruptive unintended consequences. Minnesota coach Richard Pitino, Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey and Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg were among some of the big names who thought of the bill as progress for their student athletes.

Others, like new Michigan coach Juwan Howard or Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, were more apprehensive. Howard, making $2 million this year, claimed ignorance on the issue, stating that he is too preoccupied with getting the reigns under control of his program to lend any thought on the issue. Izzo on the other hand, only making $4.3 million this year, had done his research and still is unsure about the consequences despite voicing support in helping athletes earn whatever they can.

But he made one point crystal clear: “I sure as hell don’t think it’s politiciansjob to get involved in this.”

Whose job it actually is will be litigated to death in the coming years. With many institutions seeking to weigh in on the hot button issue, don’t think you’ve heard the last of college players being compensated for their likeness. California’s new law is just the beginning with similar legislation being introduced across the country, and among all the confusion, one thing is clear – college athletics are about to change forever.