Every March Madness player should receive a lifetime annuity

Last night at the gym, I pedeled furiously on the exercise bike watching the tail end of a pretty bad national championship game. UNC emerged victorious, which is somewhat embarrassing for college hoops, given revelations of fake classes and other academic misconduct involving UNC’s football and basketball programs. As Michael Kinsley would say, the real scandal is what’s legal. These players should be paid.

Last year, the NCAA received about $1 billion in revenue from various March Madness media rights, ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, and more. The elite players who create this product receive college scholarships, but they are not paid anything near the economic value they create for others, most especially including their own coaching staffs. About 100 players per year from around the world enter the NBA every year, usually for a brief stint. Most high school and college basketball stars never make it. Some use their scholarships and college connections to do well in life. Others are chewed up and spit out by the college athletic industrial complex without enough to show for the experience and physical toll these physical games can take.

There are several ways to address this problem. I’m intrigued by the radical possibility some court will simply rule that the NCAA has no authority to regulate player compensation. The NCAA should be entitled to ensure that athletes are bona fide students. Athletes’ financial arrangements should be set in a competitive market. After initial chaos, some equilibrium would emerge. Who knows what that would be.

A less radical solution would include greater revenue sharing between the NCAA and college players. The NCAA might, for example, set aside $100 million each year to buy a simple annuity for each athlete in the top 64top 16 teams–pardon the error.  That would provide each athlete with a lifetime income of about $22,000 per year.

That wouldn’t make these athletes rich. It would provide a platform of basic economic security for these 832 208 young people, and provide them with the resources they might need to pursue further education once their athletic careers are done. The money is there, and they’ve earned it.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

18 thoughts on “Every March Madness player should receive a lifetime annuity”

  1. A) There are now 68 teams that make the tournament.

    B) $100 million divided by 884 players, is $113k invested per player. I want in on the lifetime annuity that pays 22k per year for that kind of investment.

    1. Good catch. Top 16 teams would produce that. Need $400 million or so for the top 64. Stupid mistake.

      1. How many players make multiple trips to the top? Should they get multiple annuities? I know this smacks of wealth transfer, but it might be better to figure out a scheme that also compensates the members of lower-ranked teams, since they're not going to be as likely to see any kind of NBA money — they're just the cannon fodder that makes the rest of the system run. (And for that matter, does the NBA have any kind of retirement plan, or do former players just take their chances?)

        1. The NBA has a very generous pension plan. So few players play three seasons (the vesting period) that the NBA can afford it.

          1. MLB does better. You only need 43 days of time in the majors to earn a pension, which starts at $34K and, I think, age 55. Possibly even better, a single day on an MLB roster gets you lifetime health care.

  2. As someone whose primary rooting interest is one of the many non-revenue sports, I have decidedly mixed feelings about this. For one thing, I agree with Paul Wallich that limiting the payments to just those teams that make the NCAA tournament is a bad idea that would serve only to make college basketball even less competitive, with the top teams that can make the tournament regularly getting an even higher share of the best players.

    Beyond that, the question arises as to who won't get the money that would go to a very small slice of college athletes. I doubt very much that it would be the coaches or the NCAA administrators. My guess is that it would be the athletes in sports that don't play in a billion dollar tournament that would feel the cuts.

    It's untrue that college athletes aren't compensated for their time. They receive scholarships for increasingly expensive educations. It's also not true that they don't have the time to make use of these scholarships. Male basketball players don't spend any ore of their time dedicated to their sport than do the female hockey players I'm most familiar with; they operate under the same limits to practice and competition time. The young women I've watched play hockey average about a 3.3 GPA every semester in majors as diverse as psychology, business, mathematics, chemistry, parks & recreation, kinesiology, and sports management. It isn't that it can't be done; it's that a disappointingly high proportion of athletes in the revenue generating sports don't.

    I'm far more interested in reforms that would make it easier for these players to obtain a quality degree and interested in doing so. A part of that would be a greater stipend during their time at university. Part of it would be better scheduling that is less disruptive of class time.

  3. As with J_Michael_Neal, I'm ambivalent. It would be a slap in the face to every kid who's worked her ass off for eight years at 100m and 200m high hurdles, or crew, or squash, or volleyball, or any other of two dozen other Division I sports. You'd clearly have to establish the same rules for Division I football. Then you'd bump up against Title IX issues, if only male players received compensation for their participation. Would you also pony up money for the small group of northern colleges (Maine, BC, Harvard, Wisconsin, Minnesota, RPI, etc.) that make a pretty significant amount of money from their top-tier hockey programs, with lots of broadcast games, big attendance figures, and televised tournaments?

    At the same time, yes, it's obscene how the NCAA and the coaches and the advertisers and the vendors ride these kids to vast fortunes, and never pay them a dime for their indenture. Scholarships are irrelevant. If the university accepts a kid and offers them a scholarship, that's just how scholarships work. Harvard doesn't charge a penny to any kid whose parents earn less than $100,000 per year. That doesn't mean that Harvard is paying these middle-class children one thin dime. Worse, in the sports factories, you tear your knee, or decide you'd rather run track or row crew or just quit sports and concentrate on pre-med? They revoke your scholarship. That should clearly be illegal.

    Some compromises have been proposed, along the lines of admitting students to a subsidiary of the university that is funded largely by the NFL or NBA as a minor league of sorts, and all participants receive room, board, and a modest salary. They can attend classes and get a degree at the college, or not, with no worry about faking their grades and having subs take tests for them and hiding recruiting violations and all the rest of the mess.

    But a pension for the lucky few who play one to five more games than all the rest wouldn't be a solution to anything, IMNSHO.

    1. Worse, in the sports factories, you tear your knee, or decide you'd rather run track or row crew or just quit sports and concentrate on pre-med? They revoke your scholarship. That should clearly be illegal.

      This is no longer true in the case of injuries, at least at many of the sports factories. Up until 2014, NCAA rules prevented schools from offering 4-year scholarships; instead, they had to be for one year at a time, and renewed after each season. Even then, many schools honored the scholarships of those who could no longer play due to injury. Starting in 2014, the NCAA allowed schools to offer non-revocable 4-year scholarships. The Big 10 conference mandated that all of its schools switch to using these for all athletes, and many other schools did so as well.

      It remains true that if an athlete simply quits the team, they are likely to lose their scholarship, but at many of the biggest schools, that's the only way they can lose it.

      1. Ah, thanks for the clarification. I've been living and working in Mexico since 2010, so I was unaware of that change. Still, your phrasing "simply quits the team" is a bit, um….not unkind, but maybe a contextual moving target. If the student decides he no longer wants to play varsity football or basketball, but instead concentrate on other endeavors, perhaps other sports, perhaps the student newspaper, perhaps acting in plays or singing in musicals, perhaps just buckling down for pre-med or a magna cum laude degree and an honors thesis, we should not refer to this as "quitting". I'm not trying to be difficult with you, I hope you understand, but critical of any fucking college that would yank his scholarship because it jeopardized their next year's seed for the tourney.

        1. They got the scholarship for playing the sport. I'm not sure I understand the rationale for guaranteeing it even for the person deciding that they don't want to continue to do what the scholarship was tied to. A graduate student that gets funding based upon being a TA doesn't get to keep the stipend if they stop teaching. It's the same with a lot of other ways that people get scholarships.

          1. They were admitted to the university. Just like any kid with an academic scholarship. They received financial aid to attend. Just like any kid with financial aid. Why is it only young black men whom the universities decide they can expel as soon as they "change majors", so to speak. It's racist as fucking hell, and it smacks of indentured servitude. If you admit a kid, and you give him financial aid, then stick with the fucking decision, and don't be a mercenary predatory racist prick about it if the kid shifts gears to other activities. Plain and simple. It's NOT a plantation, it's a university, and nothing should be "tied" to anything. Either you accepted the kid or you didn't. Any grey area based on being a large athletic black kid is total bullshit.

          2. Many academic scholarships come with requirements necessary to continue to receive them. It isn't anything that even vaguely resembles indentured servitude. It doesn't resemble a plantation. It's a job. Can the ridiculous, over-the-top hyperbole; it doesn't help your arguments.

          3. A real pleasure to read your informed and thoughtful arguments on this post.

  4. Yeah, right. And a 50-50 ref''s call at the end of a round-of-32 game decides which team's players get $7 million worth of annuities. Problem solved! But seriously, big money college sports, of which this is a centerpiece, is a bizarre, anomolous system that should never have been set up that way. A major flaw (not the only one)is that some (relatively few) college athletes are underpaid (but rarely unpaid) compared to their commercial value. (Far more do quite nicely with athletic scholarships as compensation.) But even if we all agree that the athletes should be paid (more), the practical difficulties of implementing that in a fair, stable, and practical way are extreme. This proposal does not qualify as a good start. If anything, it highlights the severity of the challenge. This wierd system is deeply entrenched financially and culturally, and there are no easy fixes.

    1. Scholarships are not the same as pay. Just….sooooo…..not! I bartended for 3 & 1/2 years in college. I was paid. Athletes are not paid. At the sleazier institutions, their mothers may have some secret donor pay their mortgage, and we all know the story about Eric Dickerson showing up on campus in a brand new Ferrari (leading to the death penalty for SMU), and Jerry Tarkanian funneling Vegas bookie money to ju-co stand-outs who'd matriculate at UNLV at age 21. But please let's not call scholarships remuneration. Lots of kids get scholarships, lots of upper-tier schools charge no tuition to kids whose parents earn less than X…..that simply isn't anything but the same college education a quarter of your campus is getting, at the same price. It is NOT compensation, period, and the vanity that it is smacks of racism (not you, but in the general punditry): "oh, what that ungrateful young darkie could have done with a U of Kentucky degree had he only applied himself to academics" <commence Peggy Noonan and George Will pearl-clutching here>

      1. Is a scholarship something of value? If yes, athletes are getting paid. It doesn't count legally as income (though it probably would if the idea of turning athletes into employees comes about, so keep in mind that all of the proposals to pay the athletes expose them to the possibility of seeing their effective renumeration decrease as they have to pay taxes on it), but it is something of value received in exchange for services. In other words, it's compensation, and you have to torture the words to deny that.

        Your argument is nonsensical. You are simultaneously claiming that an athletic scholarship is just something that other students receive without the commitment to play a sport and that it is something uniquely valuable that shouldn't be taken away.

        Again, your ridiculous appeals to racism don't help you. More than 65% of NCAA Division 1 athletes are white, and they face the same rules on scholarships. It is true that African-American scholarship rates are much higher in football and basketball, but you have not limited your argument to just those sports.

        Frankly, you come off as knowing nothing about this subject.

  5. An alternate proposal that would cost less is an annuity, funded on graduation, but not available to withdraw until the player is 55 or disabled. Kind of like a 401K. This basically only lowers the cost (or raises the value) of the annuity, it doesn't address the other problems pointed out above, which all seem like real problems to me. The current system is manifestly unfair, but it's hard to think of a better system. The most important thing, it seems to me, though I'm not was well-versed on the subject as the commenters above, would be to assure that the players are allowed to, and required to, get a real education in exchange for the scholarship. The idea that the NCAA, and I assume the major schools' bottom lines, benefit from the players' bodies, sometimes at terrible cost to those bodies, but neglects their minds, is disgraceful. Bodies and minds are terrible things to waste.

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