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Paying College Athletes: To Pay Or Not To Play

Updated June 23, 2021
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Paying College Athletes: To Pay Or Not To Play essay

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As of 2017, collegiate athletics is a 13 billion dollar industry (Eben). In the past 50 years, the NCAA has negotiated major television contracts, licensed video game deals, and successfully commercialized college sports. Usually with commercialization comes professionalization, however, the NCAA hinges on the amateurism of college athletics, claiming that education outweighs monetization. Many argue that schools already pay athletes by giving them free education through scholarships. Others argue that these athletes bring in such large revenues for their schools that they should be paid as working professionals. The answer lies in creating a minor league for the NFL and NBA which would allow players to choose whether to play for a school and pursue a degree or play for the minor league and receive remuneration.

The debate over whether or not college athletes should be paid is nothing new. In 1912, the Olympic committee revoked Jim Thorpe of his two gold medals after an American newspaper published an article revealing that he had received payments prior to the games for playing semi-professional baseball (Crabb). This violated the committees long-held view that the sport must be amateur or it was no longer a sport, but rather entertainment. To the committee’s surprise, opening the games to professionals did not destroy the sport, but only increased the competitiveness, making the Olympics “more popular and powerful than ever” (Crabb).

One of the most common arguments against the idea of paying college athletes is that they are already being paid in the form of scholarships. Being that college tuition is higher than it has ever been and looks to be only getting higher, this a legitimate argument. Education is valuable and people are going into extreme debt just to get it. However, according to NCAA’s website, very few perspective college athletes actually receive any scholarship at all. In fact, it states that, “only about 2 percent of high school athletes are awarded some form of athletics scholarship to compete in college,” (NCAA). This leaves the majority of college athletes still paying for their education.

For the 2 percent of athletes who are earning scholarships in non-revenue sports, like gymnastics, rowing, and track and field, scholarship subsidization is a great structure. They receive top-tier education as well as the opportunity to play for a division I sports team without the thought of student loans. However, once the spotlight is on the top revenue-generating sports, football and men’s basketball, the story begins to change.

These revenue-generating sports are usually the financial reason non-revenue sports are able to stay afloat. In a way, the athletes receiving scholarship money for non-revenue sports are getting that money because of the work a revenue-generating sport athlete earned. For many of these players, the amount of revenue they are bringing into the program is much higher than the cost of their education. Today, these programs are generating hundreds of millions of dollars creating millionaire coaches and administrators, all the while their athletes receive free meals and extra homework for the road.

Today, the highest-paid public employee in 39 of the 50 states is a college coach (ESPN). When the NCAA first started, the general public was against paying coaches as much as they were against paying student athletes. According to the same ESPN story, Alabama’s head football coach, Nick Saban, made over 11 million dollars in one season. The NCAA should be just as concerned with how much coaches are making as they are with the players. When the sports coaches are earning more than the president of the college, there should be cause for concern. If these coaches are making 11 million dollars a year they should not have walk-on athletes that are not on scholarship. Coaches are important and play a huge role within a team, however, it is the players who put their health in jeopardy and carry out a coach’s vision.

Tournaments, like NCAA’s March madness, bring in enormous revenues. CBS’ new TV rights extension for the tournament covers an eight-year period for a total rights fee of $8.8 billion (NCAA). That’s more than the Super Bowl and almost more than the entire NFL Postseason combined. Those against paying players argue that student-athletes are not playing professionally and it is not their job to play sports. According to NCAA’s 2015 student-athlete self report, college students spend more than 40 hours a week on athletic activities alone (“Results”). Tell a student-athlete that his homework is more important than football when 30 million people are tuning in to watch him play the game he’s missing class to play.

The revenue earned from college athletics is not going back into the classroom. Instead, the money goes back to coaches, athletic directors and administrators, making it much more like a business than a school. According to the association’s new federal tax return, “NCAA President Mark Emmert’s total compensation grew by nearly $500,000 during the 2016 calendar year to more than $2.4 million,” (Berkowitz). Whether athletes should be paid or not, one has to agree that the people who are making money off of these athletes are making a lot of it.

Another argument against paying players is that if schools do subsidize players, smaller schools will not be able to compete. This argument suggests that as of now schools are at an equal playing field when it comes to recruiting. However, this is hard to agree with when colleges like Alabama have locker-rooms with waterfalls and flatscreens to entice their players. As a prospective student walks through Alabama’s locker room, they will see a hallway lined with the NFL jerseys of former Alabama stars as if to say, “There will be paychecks to come.” These prospective students are not thinking, “I’m going to get a great sociology degree here.”

Schools will find ways to use resources to entice players to play there and make it look like they will truly get paid in some way or another. “There already are enormous salary disparities among and within universities—as illustrated by differences in what physics and philosophy professors are paid, and the persistent arguments over the unusually low pay of adjunct faculty,” (PUBS). Schools like Alabama are a great example that finances within the collegiate conference are already no where near an even playing field.

The NCAA’s first executive directer, a young college dropout named Walter Byers, stated that he crafted the term “Student-athlete” in the 1950’s explicitly to avoid workers comp for injured athletes. That term is still working today as college athletes do not get workman’s compensation because colleges are “not in the football business” (Branch). Richard Karcher, assistant professor of sport management at Eastern Michigan University, states, ‘The NCAA’s ‘Principle of Amateurism’ is grounded in a historic and antiquated paternalistic ideal that these adult athletes with unique talents are children (‘student-athletes’) who should be thankful for the ‘opportunity’ to participate and must be protected from the evil forces of commercialization.”

The NCAA claims that earning money would impair the athlete’s ability to earn a quality education, however, there are many student workers who work on work-study and none have said they are not receiving a quality education. They claim that paying athletes in scholarships is great for the athletes, but in reality, it’s great for the school. If these schools care more about academics than sports revenue, than why are they shutting down on game day to accommodate the large crowds for these games?

Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and former NCAA champion runner states, “What had been at stake was much more than death and injury benefits, but the entire college sports system as they had constructed it. If athletes were deemed employees, they could enter the free market just like coaches, athletic directors, maintenance workers, and others, and demand more pay. The colleges and the NCAA might lose their educational tax-exempt status, and the whole system would have to fundamentally change.”

College sports are deeply rooted in our nation and it is a fantastic thing. There are families and traditions centered around college sports and that should not change. Collegiate sports is founded upon the idea of a sound mind in a sound body and athletes should all be taught to have a sound mind. However, once the focus begins to shift from educating players to have a sound mind to building a winning mindset in a player, it becomes less about education and more about subsidization. If this is where college sports is heading then the entire structure needs to change. The only way colleges will loose the commercialized mindset is if a minor league is created for the NFL and NBA, allowing players the option to choose whether they want to play for profit or they want to pursue a college education and earn a degree.

This will drastically drop the viewership of revenue-generating college games but will bring them back to the realm of other collegiate sports like baseball and hockey. In a way, right now the NCAA is a minor league for the NBA and NFL, the only difference is they do not pay their employees. The Olympics also use to thrive off of amateurism, however it was abandoned in the 80s when they allowed for athletes to be commercialized and subsidized for their work. The United States is the only place in the world with a multi-billion-dollar sports industry operating in higher education, with underpaid labour provided by “amateur” student-athletes (Jackson).

If an athlete is an amateur because they are unpaid, then to some extent, the NCAA is the only thing keeping college athletes as amateurs. “In the current collegiate counterpart, on one side of the table is the athletic director, the head coach, the NCAA, and legal expertise, and on the other a 17-year-old kid and his mom; it’s not hard to predict that outcome” (PUBS). When we pay someone for a service they are providing we place a value on them. If college is supposed to prepare an individual for the future, then allowing athletes to receive compensation will teach them how to pay taxes and make a living doing what it is they want to do for a career.

The solution may not be simple, but can be achievable with a shared vision. Creating a minor league for the NFL and NBA just like the MLB has in place would allow students the option to either pursue their sport and earn an income while doing so, or pursue collegiate athletics and earn a degree while playing for it. This option will not only give the players the freedom to choose their future but it will free the collegiate association from carrying the burden of needing to be a professional entity with television channels and video game deals idealizing the college sports arena. It may not be what the NCAA wants, but it will demonstrate that they truly believe what they say when their priority is academics, not championships. It may not be easy, but as Martin Luther King Jr said, “Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle.”

Works Cited

  1. Berkowitz, Steve. “NCAA’s Mark Emmert Got a Nearly $500,000 Raise to $2.4 Million in Compensation in 2016.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 21 June 2018, www.usatoday.com/story/sports/college/2018/06/21/ncaa-mark-emmert-got- nearly-500-000-raise-2-4-million/722482002/.
  2. Branch, Taylor. “The Shame of College Sports.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 19 Feb. 2014, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/10/the-shame-of-college-sports/ 308643/?single_page=true.
  3. Crabb, Kelly Charles. “The Amateurism Myth: A Case for a New Tradition.” Stanford Law & Policy Review, vol. 28, no. 2, June 2017, pp. 181–214. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=123947077&site=ehost-live.
  4. Jackson, Victoria. “How the Multi-Billion-Dollar US College Sports Industry Exploits Its Stars.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 11 Oct. 2018, www.independent.co.uk/sport/us-sport/college-sports-industry-exploitation-amateurism- ncaa-a8579606.html.
  5. NCAA. NCAA Recruiting Facts. NCAA Recruiting Facts, National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2018, www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/ Recruiting%20Fact%20Sheet%20WEB.pdf.
  6. NCAA.com. “Turner, CBS and the NCAA Reach Long-Term Multimedia Rights Extension for DI Men’s Basketball.” NCAA.com, NCAA.com, 12 Apr. 2016, www.ncaa.com/news/ basketball-men/article/2016-04-12/turner-cbs-and-ncaa-reach-long-term-multimedia- rights.
  7. Novy-Williams, Eben. “College Sports.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 27 Sept. 2017, www.bloomberg.com/quicktake/college-sports-ncaa.
  8. “Results from the 2015 GOALS Study of the Student-Athlete Experience.” NCAA.org, NCAA, 2016, www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/ GOALS_convention_slidebank_jan2016_public.pdf.
  9. Sanderson, Allen R., and John J. Siegfried. “The Case for Paying College Athletes.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 29, no. 1, 2015, pp. 115–138., doi:10.1257/jep.29.1.115.
  10. “Who Gets Paid More, Your College Coach or Your Governor?” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, 20 Mar. 2018, www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/22454170/highest-paid-state- employees-include-ncaa-coaches-nick-saban-john-calipari-dabo-swinney-bill-self-bob- huggins.
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