Paychecks, Drafts and Firings: The Possible Future of College Sports

As Elijah Higgins sat on a witness stand this week, he detailed the similarities between his experience last season as a rookie tight end for the Arizona Cardinals and the four years he had spent playing football at Stanford University.

Five or six days a week at each level of play, he was immersed in football activities: lifting weights, practice, film study, physical therapy and playing games. There is travel on charter jets. Free tickets for friends and relatives. Robust coaching staffs setting rules.

There are some differences, Higgins allowed. In the National Football League, there are no classes to attend, though at Stanford, he said, academics took a back seat to football, which is why he still has a few classes to take before earning his bachelor’s degree in psychology.

The only other distinction is that, in contrast to Stanford, he now earns a paycheck. The minimum salary in the N.F.L. last season was $750,000.

Higgins said that at Stanford, in an environment where critical thinking was encouraged, he had begun to consider how money drove what he called the college football “system,” where even at an elite university like Stanford, the pursuit of academics was encouraged only so long as it did not interfere with football.

“I do agree with the fact that college football players are employees without status,” he said.

Higgins was the last of about two dozen witnesses who had testified over the last five months in a National Labor Relations Board hearing that bears wide-ranging consequences for a narrow question: Should football players, and basketball players, at the University of Southern California be classified as employees?

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