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Student-Athlete or Athlete-Student?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Martin P. Sellers
January 31, 2022


The U.S. Department of Labor was created during the Presidency of Howard Taft on March 4, 1913. What does this have to do with student-athletes? Read on and you’ll see.

Certainly, no one wants to unfairly capitalize on the performance of student-athletes. The NCAA was created by President Roosevelt in 1906, mainly to limit the brutality occurring in college football and was revamped through the years to protect student-athletes who were going to college while attempting to continue to play sports. The NCAA has continued to protect the ideal of amateurism, keep students from the negative impact of money and support student success in academics. I am not a cheerleader for the NCAA, but at its heart, has been student success and wellbeing, promotion of students toward professionalism and support for students moving forward toward degree success. Now, debate has arisen over whether students should profit from their own name, image and likeness (NILs). Of 19.5 million students enrolled in college today, 460,000 are registered with the NCAA. Of this group, about 1% receive four-year scholarships. Of the rest, a small percentage receives partial scholarships or funds that apply to only a limited aspect of college costs such as partial tuition, housing, athletic training or food. Of the 5,300 academic institutions in American, 1,700 are considered public institutions. As such, this issue is smack-dab in the heart of public administration and public policy.

Will Student-Athletes Remain Students, Really?

When I talk with colleagues in academia about this issue, the most common responses have to do with misuse of money, loss of focus upon academics and corruption. When student-athletes begin receiving money for performance, and that is exactly what it will be—funders are not going to support a student that is not bringing notoriety to the institution—performance will most likely become a student’s compass in directing his/her actions, motivations and success—not academics. Another issue is that student-athletes must abide by the requirements and demands of their academic program. Will academically poorer students be propped up, provided unfair help to “get them through,” keeping them in good standing at the institution? Will new questionable pathways to graduation emerge to keep the less academically able students in school, providing false hope for real learning? Concern that there will be more avenues for, and methods of, corruption will become prominent, such as inside trading of players, illegal betting or throwing games based on illicit agreements. Then there is the difficult issue of the many states and cities creating, interpreting or following their own laws and regulations to whatever end is particularly beneficial for that state, locality or institution. So far, the courts have sided with students in their pursuit of payment for NILs. This brings to mind questions about the level of impact on students by corporations (such as Nike and Spaulding), local businesses, individual sports supporters, local media and others who want to benefit through paying students.

Outcry to the Public Sector

Congress should step in now before more complicated difficulties arise. There have been court cases that have favored student-athletes against misuse and abuse. The courts have already weighed in and allowed student-athletes to be given computers, free study abroad funds, graduate tuition and stipends by their institutions, but as yet, not salaries. The courts have, under the protection of anti-trust laws, allowed college athletes to solicit endorsement deals, sell their own merchandise and make money from their social media accounts. There are 15 states that have developed laws regarding pay for NILs. They differ and vary and are difficult, for the most part, to interpret. Differing statutes and regulations will cause a good deal of frustration, if not legal trouble, for athletes, their families, academic counselors, admissions offices, entrepreneurs and the public.

What’s to Be Done?

The U. S. Department of Labor (DOL) was designed with a mission “To foster, promote and develop the welfare of wage earners, job seekers and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.” The DOL has organization departments that include OSHA, management standards, labor affairs, the women’s bureau, disability management and the inspector general. The United States is already set to centralize and regulate the funding of student-athletes’ NILs, should payment for the use of student-athlete NILs continue to be found a legitimate and meaningful practice. This is precisely why public administration is crucial to affect public and civil change. We already have agencies at the national level and in all states that can regulate, monitor and impact student-athletes’ NILs. We may be able to enable students to benefit from their NILs in a regulated and supportable way and still consider them as student-athletes!

Author: Martin P. Sellers, PhD, MPA, MBA, is Dean of the School of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Lincoln Memorial University (LMU) in Harrogate, Tennessee. He led the creation of the MPA program at LMU in 2015 which went fully online in 2019. Before academics, he worked in all four levels of government, city, county, state and national, including a stint in the US Department of Agriculture. In addition, during a year as Dean of Research at LMU, he was able to encourage collaboration between diverse groups and develop pathways for collaborative scholarship. He may be reached at [email protected] and @martysellers.

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