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Ferentz: Expanded Compensation For College Athletes A 'Positive' Development

National rules strictly regulate how college athletes can be compensated, even as coaches and administrators earn fortunes off their efforts. Recent court rulings and state laws may soon upend this imbalance.

The University of Iowa’s head football coach says the prospect of student athletes being compensated for their work on the field is a “positive” development. But he acknowledges there are a host of unknowns around the changes, with legal challenges and debates playing out from state capitols to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hawkeye Football Coach Kirk Ferentz wagers no one really knows how compensating college players will affect programs like Iowa football or the athletes themselves. But he says overall, the shift is positive.

“It is a positive,” he told reporters Tuesday. “But with that, there’s a real challenge,” he said, referring to navigating the changes.

The shift towards broader compensation for players has attracted more attention in recent months and appears poised to upend the long-standing economic imbalance in college sports.

Student athletes are the driving force in the enormous money-making operation that is college sports but are among the very few not bringing in hefty, if not blockbuster, salaries.

According to a USA TODAY analysis, Ferentz earned some $4.6 million in 2020, placing him among the top 20 highest-paid college football coaches in the country.

Players, especially in men’s football and basketball, are at the center of an entertainment empire, replete with licensing, marketing and television deals that earn fortunes for coaches and administrators.

Yet under NCAA rules, the players themselves cannot earn a salary. What compensation they are given is strictly regulated and largely limited to scholarships that can cover their tuition, room and board.

Still, graduation rates show that many college athletes are not earning the college degree they were promised. Stark disparities persist, including at Iowa, where a 2019 internal analysis found Black male players across the Athletics Department had a 42 percent graduation rate, roughly half that of their white male peers, at 81 percent.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court chipped away at the current player compensation structure, handing student athletes a narrow victory by overturning a NCAA rule limiting education-related compensation for college players.

In the ruling, Justice Brett Kavanaugh lambasted the current system for violating the nation’s antitrust laws and appeared to open the door for future challenges.

“The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America. All of the restaurants in a region cannot come together to cut cooks’ wages on the theory that “customers prefer” to eat food from low-paid cooks,” Kavanaugh wrote. “Price-fixing labor is price-fixing labor. And price-fixing labor is ordinarily a textbook antitrust problem because it extinguishes the free market in which individuals can otherwise obtain fair compensation for their work.”

Iowa wide receiver Tyrone Tracy said he’s eager to have the ability to earn more than an education for his time playing Division I football. Tracy acknowledged that not every player will make it to the NFL or be able to play professionally. Landing a spot on a college team is a “once in a lifetime opportunity," not only players but for their families as well, Tracy said.

“A lot of people don’t come from a lot of money from back home. This money can help their family back home. Some people don’t understand that. You gotta look at the big picture,” Tracy said. “If you can make money right now you should be able to.”

Speaking more broadly about the shift towards expanded compensation for players, Ferentz said he’ll be drawing on outside expertise to navigate the changes.

“It also appears most of us are going to be partnering up with experts. So some smart people on the outside have seen this coming and they’ve…maybe capitalized on an opportunity,” Ferentz said. “I know in my case and probably our coaching staff’s case, we’re going to be really leaning on people that do understand the ins and outs of this. It’s like everything…any changes that come along, you try and navigate it and do it the best you can.”

States across the country have passed bills allowing college players to profit off their name, image and likeness. A bill proposing the change in Iowa died this session, as lawmakers waited for further guidance from the courts.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter