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COVID-19 should force the NCAA to take (another) hard look in the mirror and compensate its “student-athletes”

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Sam Williams exemplifies the need for policy change.

Ole Miss Athletics

COVID-19 has changed the course of our global landscape, and forced a period of re-evaluation on neighborhoods, universities, states, nations, and the worldwide community. As unprecedented circumstances cause local businesses, fortune-500 corporations, and state and national governments to pivot their strategies, or fold entirely, the National Collegiate Athletic Association should assess the ramifications of the global pandemic and use it as an opportunity to alter its approach to its student-athletes and financial compensation.

Many of the amateurs who rely on university operations to support day-to-day life have had to return home, as most colleges close their doors for the unforeseeable future. At Ole Miss, students and faculty have been encouraged to self-quarantine alongside city ordinance, avoid campus, and in many cases return home. Classes have resumed online, and courses will be offered through digital means for the remainder of the semester, while campus dining halls, dormitories and offices are closed.

Additionally, the Southeastern Conference has cancelled all spring sporting events, including practices, team workouts and all meetings/gatherings.

Under these stipulations, team food services are suspended, and life in many ways has been put on halt. Ole Miss linebacker Sam Williams is one case of the difficult conditions that are now surfacing by the pandemic fallout. He expressed his concern on Twitter.

Williams was born into a broken home and tough neighborhood in Birmingham, Ala. and lived a different life than most young children.

“Where I was from in Birmingham, it is either kill or be killed,” Williams said in a profile with SuperTalk Mississippi. “You have to keep your head on a swivel and grow up quick. There’s no childhood in that life.”

He was removed from his mother’s custody at the age of six, and spent his middle years moving between the homes of family members, before he found the Cain family who took him in and became his legal guardians while he attended a small high school outside of Montgomery.

Williams found an outlet in sports, and worked his way to an offer to play football at Northeast Mississippi Community College. Two years later, the 6-foot-3, 251 pound junior started 2019 at linebacker for Ole Miss and recorded 37 total tackles and six sacks.

Today, he is left with his hands tied at the mercy of the NCAA.

As someone who needs financial support and benefits provided through athletics, his means of life has been ripped out from under him. And he’s not the only one questioning the system without answers as to what’s next and why it is so.

In college basketball, for example, the widespread unemployment resulting from the pandemic could force late-round prospects to declare for professional league drafts solely to support their families, even if they are “not ready” for the next level. Some college athletes do not have the luxury of waiting another full calendar year to improve their draft stocks if their guardians are out of work and can’t pay the bills.

The NCAA justifies a self-righteous moral authority through its deep-rooted claim of protecting the so-called “student-athlete.” In this instance, the protective measures have failed. Again.

This purposefully equivocal “student-athlete” term came into existence in the 1950s and implies that they are neither students playing sport, nor a sportsman at work. As athletes, they must reach the academic standards of their peers, but as students, they must not be compensated for anything beyond cost of studies and livelihood.

College athletes are thus tangled in a vague web of NCAA bylaws that hold them hostage in a business model that does not compensate its employees in salary, but profits from their product to the tune of a billion dollars in revenue.

Of course, it would be wrong to remain ignorant to the idea that student-athletes receive compensation through the benefits of room, board and academic degrees. At Ole Miss and most universities around the country, student-athletes may receive academic and athletic scholarships up to the full price of tuition and meal stipends, as well as access to nutrition facilities, tutors and health services that are exclusive to athletic department. Though in truth, the strongest voices on that side of the argument come from athletic directors and coaches.

There is no easy answer as to how to fairly pay college athletes, but many publications, experts and analysts have offered solutions from opening the free market, to school-issued stipends, providing a distribution of donations to the athletic department, or creating a salary cap similar to that of a professional league.

No matter how logical the proposal, it does not appear that the NCAA will consider a direct compensatory system in the near future, and perhaps, even if it is the right thing to do, it’s not worth dwelling on during this time of circumstantial unease. However, from the moment a student-athlete enrolls at a university, the NCAA owns his or her likeness, prohibiting him or her to profit from his or her name.

If not more than temporarily, that needs an immediate change.

Exemplified by Williams, the student-athlete population is reliant on systems in place for things as simple as putting food on the table. Now, with closures and cancellations, they are sent home and left without an income. The part-time job opportunities are limited to nonexistent in the current climate, and receiving help from a family member or a friend is a direct violation that could result in penalties toward the university.

The question is, especially in these trying times... why?

To further illustrate the ludicrous nature of the NCAA and its partisan regulation, look at star quarterback Trevor Lawrence and his efforts to raise money for victims of the Coronavirus. Lawrence and his girlfriend Marissa Mowry, who plays soccer at Anderson University, created a GoFundMe page to provide relief and support to those effected by COVID-19.

After it raised over $2,500, Clemson’s compliance department asked Lawrence to end the campaign, pointing to NCAA rules that prohibit student-athletes from using name, image and likeness for crowd funding efforts.

The Association has since granted an exception and allowed Lawrence to re-open donations, affirming that it never reached out to Clemson to take down his fundraising efforts. The NCAA did the right thing in this instance (after public backlash), but one has to wonder how long it would have been before contact with Clemson might have been made.

“We continue to work with member schools so they have the flexibility to ensure that student-athletes and communities impacted by this illness are supported, and we applaud Trevor for his efforts,” the Association said in a statement.

Once again, it begs the question... why? Why was this even an issue in the first place?

In a time of global crisis, the governing body of collegiate athletics has been exposed. For an organization that prides itself on taking care of its own, it continues to harm the very people it was built to protect.

President Mark Emmert and the NCAA needs to take a step back and amend its principles to match its priorities and values. If taking care of student-athletes what the organization was founded on, the compensation of players needs come first. Now more than ever, it is time.