Last month, Time Magazine had a cover story “It’s Time to Pay College Athletes” arguing for compensating football and basketball players. The cover featured Johnny “Football” Manziel in his best Heisman pose leveraging the recent controversy over allegations Johnny Football was paid for his signature. The looming possibility of NCAA violations brought many to ask the question: why shouldn’t he get paid for it? Celebrities, professional athletes, etc. are allowed to get paid for their signatures. Moreover, the article went on to expound the injustice of big-name schools that make millions from college sports exploiting their unpaid athletes by not sharing the profit with them. On its surface, it seems like a fair question. However, instead of paying scholarship-receiving student-athletes an actual income, perhaps we should look at the structure of school athletic programs and consider the role they play in their respective institutions overall.
College football and basketball have become major commercial sports. The past decade has seen a stark increase in prime-time network coverage, cable coverage, sales of replica jerseys, ticket prices, and overall enthusiasm from the commercial sports world. With these changes it only seems fair the players – the people out there making the event happen – should be compensated for their efforts, right? Well, they are compensated, and handsomely at that. A 4-year scholarship that includes room & board could be worth well over $100,000 in some cases. John Van Riper of Forbes Magazine makes the argument “Recruits jump on the offer of tuition, room and board without hesitation. And let’s not call them exploited – they aren’t. Slaves were exploited. A scholarship athlete at a university can leave anytime he wants to, free to become a tuition-paying student like anyone else.” Then there’s the education itself. I doubt there are many people in the world that would scoff at a free college education in exchange for playing a game (that they typically love to play) for free.
Speaking of schools making money on sports, how exactly does that work? Revenue-generating sports like football and basketball earn money that can go to non-revenue sports, such as volleyball, track & field, fencing, etc. This is what allows schools to offer scholarships to students that aren’t football, basketball, baseball or hockey players. It is what allows schools to have diverse athletics, rather than simply allowing revenue-generating sports to cannibalize the athletics department. As John Meyer of The Denver Post puts it, “If football runs a profit, that profit pays for track and volleyball and soccer. CU [Colorado University] has excellent teams in skiing and cross-country that have won multiple national championships, and they don’t even charge admission at their meets. If football players are being exploited, their labors are making it possible for fellow “student-athletes” to compete and get an education.” Perhaps more importantly, revenue generated from commercialized collegiate sports bring in funds that can go to the school itself – improving facilities, increasing funding for arts, and paying competitive salaries to raise the quality of the faculty. This, in theory, will help any school fulfill its mission: to educate students to become productive individuals capable of critical thinking and informed decision making.
And after all, that is why college football, basketball, etc. players are called ‘student-athletes.’ Notice the ‘student’ comes before the athlete? And yes, I know as you’re reading you might be laughing at “student-athlete” considering the fact that many college basketball and football players don’t take their studies seriously. But, there are many that do. According to NCAA’s estimated probabilities, only 1.2% of male college basketball players go pro, 1.7% for football, and 0.9% for female basketball players. In fact, the only sport over 2% is baseball at 11.6%. That means that for the vast majority of student athletes the “student” part is a real reason for playing the sport. This raises some serious questions on how compensation for student-athletes would work in the first place. Would only the 3-4% of athletes in serious contention for a pro career get paid? Would it be a performance-based, contract incentive like professional sports? Or would students receive payment at the end of the sports schedule based on their contributions? How does one really calculate that value since anyone that knows sports understands the relationship between the “intangibles” and the hard stats?
From a fairness and equability standpoint, there is really no fair way to create a compensation scale for student-athletes. The closest form would be to adopt the current standards used in professional compensation, but doing that would make the sport professional, not collegiate. At that point, why even bother having student-athletes go to class or maintain a minimum GPA? Answer: because the majority of student-athletes care more about getting an education that will set them on a career path than trying desperately to chase an improbable professional athletic career, meaning it’s the diploma, not the sport, that will get them paid.
Some players might make the argument that they are an injury away from losing any commercial value on the professional sports market, so they should make the money while they can. If that’s the sentiment, enter the draft early. If a player is on campus to get an education, they don’t need to get paid for playing their sport: the education is payment. If a player is on campus to make money as a pro, abandon the education and go pro. There is also the potential of unfair advantages of larger schools scooping up high school talent with payments. This is already a bit of a problem, where large state schools with expensive sports programs and an army of boosters have an unfair competitive advantage in recruiting. Smaller schools often have to rely on using the appeal of their academics, which would become less of a possibility if payment was part of the recruiting packages. This would essentially create a situation in which larger, more athletically competitive schools (Oregon, Ohio State, the whole SEC, etc.) would be able to corner the market on H.S. talent with paid athletes. In all likelihood, the schools with professional athletes would split off from the NCAA altogether and form a semi-pro-college hybrid league.
Part of the problem is that the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and other pro organizations treat college programs as their feeder systems. For the most part this has worked well over the decades. However, as professional athlete salaries reach multimillions per year, many feel the there should be a middle ground between being compensated solely in college tuition and the insane pay levels of professional athletes. And perhaps there should be. The MLB, for example has multiple levels of developmental leagues at varying salaries. Perhaps, instead of insisting that college students get paid for playing sports, more pro league should establish developmental leagues, in which tuition reimbursement is part of the compensation if athletes want an education as well as get paid.
One thing that is clear is that the world of college sports is changing. From the BCS to March Madness, sports fans are finding they enjoy college sports more and more. This raises one more question. Professional sports have a much higher competitive level, so why the increase in fanaticism over college sports? As a sports fan, I enjoy college sports because college athletes aren’t overpaid egomaniacs whose performance on the field is solely in hopes of landing a bigger free agency contract. While certain student-athletes are vying for becoming higher draft picks, when they’re part of a school program they are equal with all of their peers in terms of their monetary value as athletes. There are no trades to worry about. If you are recruited, chances are the vast majority of your fellow freshman will be the teammates with whom you share your college career. This allows for greater cohesion as a team, where each player represents the school and community, which we the fans can see and feel when our favorite teams take the field. In summation, the money from revenue-generating sports should go back into the institution itself. Paying college athletes will change college sports in ways that will undo the gains in popularity and revenue-generation that bring the question up in the first place.
Image from Time Magazine
“It’s Time to Pay College Athletes” – Sean Gregory, Time Magazine
“Sorry Time Magazine: Colleges Have No Reason To Pay Athletes“ – Tom Van Riper, Forbes Magazine
“It’s time to pay college athletes,” says Time magazine? Fiddlesticks” – John Meyer, The Denver Post