What does SB 206 mean for the future of college athletics?

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If there’s one thing you’ll hear when you ask around about SB 206, it’s “I don’t know.”

Many things have been said about the then-controversial, and now widely accepted, Senate bill that sought to give student-athletes the rights to their name, image and likeness in order to earn some kind of income and profit for their prolific and taxing work playing a sport for their school.

But if you ask anyone in the college sports world about what will actually happen in 2023, or next year, or tomorrow the answer is simple.

No one knows. This is uncharted territory. No one knows precisely what the NCAA’s new rules will be. The NCAA is in the midst of writing those rules, so even it might not know.

What people want to happen, though, is often predicated on their views on one issue, specifically on the question of compensation for student-athletes. And here is where most fall into two camps.

The NCAA and many other officials are primarily concerned with maintaining the amateur aspect of college athletics. They do not want to pay student-athletes because that leads down the slippery slope of professionalism. How, then, would one distinguish between students and professional athletes? Who would or would not be eligible to compete at the college level?

Beyond that, it is unknown if college athletic departments actually have the funds to pay student-athletes. Multiple schools’ athletics departments do not make profits. There isn’t always enough money to pay everyone.

But critics of the system bring up valid points. Athletes deserve to be compensated, and SB 206 should only be the first step. The sheer amount of work athletes put in at the college level merits some form of payment beyond an education, which is difficult for them to attain while competing for their schools.

There are certain academic and collegiate opportunities those students will never partake in given their commitments; it is difficult to receive a well-rounded education and athletes should be compensated for this. 

Not to mention that athletes are putting their bodies on the line for multiple seasons or more. They risk injuries that could derail their careers, and they receive no compensation for that risk. In football, for example, there is an increasing trend of collegiate players missing games in their final seasons to avoid potential harm.

The problem with the current structure is that colleges are viewed as the professional track for many athletes. The NFL requires three years of play in a collegiate setting, and the NBA has its “one and done” rule. 

So how does one balance these two seemingly contrasting views? How do athletes get compensated, while the NCAA maintains its amateurism? How do student-athletes get that time in school that they deserve? How do schools avoid bleeding money?

The answer is simple. Separate those systems and dismantle the college sports complex.

Well. That’s not exactly simple, but hear me out.

Before I get into the weeds, I acknowledge the inherent irony. I am a sports editor at a newspaper in a college town. My career, thus far, has consisted of reporting on college sports. That is what I do. I have enjoyed it, and while I’m not advocating for the death of collegiate athletics, they must be changed.

This means that, for many athletes, college is just a waypoint en route to a lucrative career in professional sports. These athletes aren’t there to focus on an education, or rather, the education they’re focusing on is the one required for competing at the next level.

But many other athletes are there to truly be student-athletes. A vast majority of these student-athletes will not become professionals. They are there to compete and get their degree, and these athletes deserve an opportunity at a more relaxed athletic approach while taking full advantage of the diverse college experiences available. 

Hours of practice, training and games are compounded by travels and other commitments. Student-athletes deserve to maximize both their time as students and athletes.

Those who want to move on to the highest level of athletic competition should have professional track programs where they are getting paid for risking injury and committing to these consuming practices and games.

This could allow professional sports teams to develop players to fit their own systems or playing styles. It would allow student-athletes to balance the student and athlete aspects of their lives.

This doesn’t exclude those student-athletes from becoming professionals if they suddenly improve. They could still be drafted or offered contracts by professional teams after their time in college, but those who want to play professionally would have a clear path to that goal that came with compensation for their labor.

It is unclear exactly how these new rules stemming from SB 206 will go into effect. Both schools and the NCAA will be loath to change a system that brings them revenue and publicity, and passionate fans and alumni will surely balk at such a suggestion.

It will ultimately be up to the athletes themselves, but putting their formal educations and bodies on the line without compensation may prove untenable. In a world where increased specialization and time commitments are required to become a professional athlete, the only solution is to create a system where that is focused on and compensated for.

Jasper Sundeen is an assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].