Michael Hsu is a University of Minnesota regent. He is also a basketball fan. He had the same reaction as many others when Duke phenom Zion Williamson suffered a knee injury after his Nike shoe disintegrated in a recent game.
First shock, then thoughts about money and whether Williamson should have been allowed to enter the NBA without a year of college or, at least allowed to receive financial compensation during his brief stop at Duke.
Hsu is not a fan of the NCAA’s amateurism model. He believes it is based on principles that are outdated, unfair and don’t jibe with economic realities of modern college athletics.
“Amateurism is an invention by the NCAA in the 1950s so they didn’t have to pay workers’ comp and didn’t have to pay for the labor,” he said.
The NCAA generated more than $1 billion in revenue last year. The Big Ten distributed $51 million to each of its schools thanks to TV revenue. Coaching salaries have skyrocketed. Hsu sees everybody getting rich in the arms race, except athletes.
He says stakeholders in college sports resist compensating athletes beyond scholarships and cost-of-living stipends because they want “to capitalize on the free labor.”
“That’s where I have a problem,” he said. “The NCAA wants to get their labor for free. But there’s a point where there’s a moral problem with that.”
Hsu said he has been thinking about this topic for 30 years but decided to share his opinions publicly in response to the pay-for-play scandal that rocked college basketball.
He wrote an article for the website Deadspin in November. He outlined his own proposal to compensate athletes while “deflating some old and phony NCAA pieties.”
Hsu compared full cost-of-attendance figures for full-ride scholarship athletes at every Big Ten school from the 2017-18 school year. Northwestern had the highest value at $70,385. The scholarship at Minnesota for an in-state athlete was $25,269, a difference of $45,116.
Hsu thinks schools should provide athletes that difference as compensation to equalize full cost of attendance. He used Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson as an example.
“Clayton Thorson was the highest-paid quarterback in the NCAA in 2017 because his full cost of attendance that he was able get was more than [every other school],” Hsu said. “The Clayton Thorson that would have gone to the University of Illinois would have only got $29,000 a year. How is that fair?”
Hsu says each school could decide how to handle that gap, whether it gives cash, tuition credits, a trust fund, pay for graduate school, etc.
Hsu also believes that student-athletes essentially are employees based on their time commitment.
“You have to follow more rules than most employees of any company,” he said. “You have to practice or you don’t play. When you’re in-season, you’re easily spending more than 40 hours a week. That’s a full-time person. So why aren’t you an employee? Only because the NCAA says you’re not.”
Hsu cited the case of former Gophers wrestler Joel Bauman, who quit competition in 2013 after the NCAA ruled that he could not profit off his name as an aspiring music artist.
“You’ve got music students all over the university that are able to do that,” Hsu said. “Why are you restricting that? It doesn’t make any sense.”
I have long supported the Olympic model that allows athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness. Under that proposal, athletes could sign endorsement deals and earn income off their success. Hsu is in favor of that model, too.
“If they have a market value to do a commercial,” he said.
The NCAA has been slow to change in this debate. And schools that already spend to their means would push back on compensating athletes beyond cost-of-attendance stipends.
“Spend less in other areas,” Hsu argues.
Hsu says earning a degree should remain a primary mission of college athletics. But he finds hypocrisy in the current economic model.
“All I’m saying is,” Hsu said, “if you believe in fairness, we can fix the problem by changing a few words in the NCAA bylaws and rules.”