Should College Athletes Be Paid? Yes, But Maybe Not How You Think
By Luke Redd
| Last Updated October 14, 2020
Few questions provoke as much debate as this one: Should college athletes be paid? It's a controversial issue with a long history of inspiring passionate discourse and even some lawsuits. But although some people are able to quickly answer the question with a simple yes or no, many of us find it difficult to formulate an opinion. (People on each side of the debate have many valid arguments.) It's a complex issue.
At its core, the dispute over whether college athletes should be paid comes down to questions about fairness and values—two things that tend to be very subjective and divisive. Plus, sports and academics often seem to have cross purposes. So much money is involved in big-time intercollegiate athletics that it leaves many people wondering whether major sports teams are taking priority over the fundamental mission of colleges and universities: education.
What's the answer? This article is your guide to the most common arguments on each side of the debate over paying college athletes. Pros and cons are presented to help you make up your own mind. But you'll also learn about a potential way forward that could address concerns on both sides. After all, one thing is clear: This controversy won't go away without significant changes to the status quo.
- Pros: Why college athletes should be paid
- Cons: Why paying college athletes might be a bad idea
- A possible solution
Pros: Why College Athletes Should Be Paid
It's easy to think of sports as being all about play—fun and games. But many of today's college and university athletes perceive their participation in team sports as more work than play. Although they may sometimes feel the kind of carefree joy that young kids experience when playing in the street or backyard, a lot of athletes at the college level too often feel like underappreciated employees—or worse.
Here's a big reason why: The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)—the organization that regulates college athletes—views student athletes as amateurs. In fact, in order to participate in an NCAA sport, you must agree to the organization's rules about amateurism. That means you can't receive any gifts, prizes, or monetary compensation (above the amount needed for expenses) related to your athletic talents. In short, you can't do things that are traditionally associated with being a professional athlete.
With that information in mind, check out five of the most commonly cited reasons why the answer to "Should NCAA athletes be paid?" is yes.
1. Removal of the exploitation factor
Although college athletes must maintain amateur status, many schools generate incredibly large revenues from their talents. In fact, head football and basketball coaches at several colleges and universities earn multi-million-dollar salaries, meaning that a lot of them have the highest-paying public jobs in their states. And a lot of schools continue to pay millions upon millions of dollars for lavish new stadium expansions or luxurious facilities for their athletic departments. Simply put, there's big money in intercollegiate sports—primarily in football and basketball.
According to a report on where the money comes from, the NCAA generates about $867.5 million each year just from the marketing and television rights for the Division I Men's Basketball Tournament, also known as "March Madness." It generates another $177.9 million from ticket sales to championship games. The various Division I athletic conferences also derive substantial revenues from broadcasting rights and royalties, as do many individual schools.
So, are college athletes paid any of that money? Not directly. Some of the money is used to help fund athletic scholarships, services, and related expenses. But student athletes aren't paid any salaries or bonuses, even when their teams perform well and generate extra revenue. They also aren't allowed to make money from their limited celebrity status (such as by selling autographed jerseys, endorsing products, or doing local commercials). Meanwhile, their coaches—as well as some administrators—may receive sizable bonuses for having a winning season (on top of their already-large salaries).
Is that fair? It's true that many student athletes receive scholarships that cover their tuition, fees, books, and room and board. They also may receive "cost of attendance" stipends to cover other living expenses (such as transportation). But coaches usually get to decide who gets full-ride scholarships, and for how long.
Some student athletes receive four-year scholarships that are guaranteed, even if they get injured or underperform athletically. But many others receive one-year scholarships that must be renewed each year, without any guarantees. And a lot of athletes only get partial scholarships. (At NCAA Division I schools, the average scholarship for athletics is only $18,013 for men and $18,722 for women.)
Of course, scholarship amounts are highest for athletes in the major revenue-generating sports (football and basketball). Even so, an argument can be made that players in those sports deserve more compensation since it is their performances that help pay for huge coaching salaries, lavish facilities, and less-prominent sports at their schools. They provide highly popular entertainment and amazing promotional value, but their compensation is often out of proportion with that value. So the norms of capitalism would dictate that many college football and basketball players are owed more for what they help generate. After all, fans are buying tickets and tuning in to watch them play. They are the primary sources of those big revenues.
In addition, when it comes to NCAA football and basketball, a very large portion of the athletes have grown up disadvantaged. Their backgrounds often include poverty, dangerous neighborhoods, and repeated childhood trauma. In a significant number of cases, at least one of their parents has been imprisoned. To make matters worse, their public schools may have been poorly funded. It all adds up to getting a poor education, without stability at home, and having few opportunities outside of their athletic abilities. For them, college football or basketball may look like the only chance at a better future, as long as they're gifted enough. So they don't play sports so much for the joy as for the desperate need to climb out of poverty and help their families.
2. Fair compensation for the full-time expectations
A lot of student athletes who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are unprepared for college academics. But even if athletes are capable of handling college-level classes, they may not have the time necessary for doing well in them. That's because college sports (especially the major ones) frequently require athletes to spend as much as 40 hours a week practicing, training, and competing. In many situations, that time commitment extends to the off-season.
The result is that a lot of student athletes have trouble making it to graduation. Some coaches and athletic departments even steer their most valuable athletes into the easiest majors possible while providing "support" that any reasonable person might perceive as cheating. So a student athlete may have a great scholarship, but he or she may not be in a position to actually take advantage of its educational benefits.
Plus, when all of your time must be spent going to class and fulfilling your athletic requirements, no time is left for being able to earn extra money through a regular job outside of athletics (if your scholarship even permits that sort of thing). It can make for a pretty limited existence.
3. Tangible recognition of the risks
On average, more than 210,000 injuries are sustained by NCAA student athletes each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overall, they are injured at a rate of six injuries per 1,000 competitions or practices. Men's football games have the highest injury rate (nearly 40 injuries per 1,000 competitions). Some of the most common types of injuries include muscle strains, ligament sprains, bone fractures, dislocations, and concussions.
As mentioned above, NCAA Division I colleges and universities are allowed to offer four-year, guaranteed scholarships. However, coaches generally have a limited number of those scholarships to offer (usually to the most heavily recruited athletes). So, many student athletes only receive partial or one-year, renewable scholarships. In those cases, an athlete can have his or her scholarship withdrawn or non-renewed after suffering a catastrophic injury or being cut from a team.
The effects of a severe injury—or repeated injuries or head traumas—can last a lifetime. College athletes in injury-prone sports are risking their long-term health and well-being.
4. Practical acknowledgment of the long odds of making it to the pros
People who believe that college athletes should not be paid often point out that professional athletes in the major sports can make millions of dollars. So they think that student athletes just need to work hard and remain patient for their future rewards. But that's like telling someone to keep providing a valuable service for free or low pay because they'll win the lottery as soon as their contract expires. In the vast majority of cases, that simply won't happen. It's a fictional golden carrot.
Exceedingly few college athletes ever get the opportunity to play for a professional sports franchise. In fact, according to a report on the estimated probabilities of doing so, only about 1.5 percent of all NCAA football players get drafted into the National Football League (NFL). When it comes to men's basketball, only 1.1 percent of NCAA athletes in the sport get drafted by teams in the National Basketball Association (NBA). And only 0.9 percent of NCAA women's basketball players get drafted into the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA).
5. A potential end to the seedy underbelly of college sports
Right now, a lot of the most talented and sought-after athletes get secret offers for under-the-table perks. As an athlete, it can be very tempting to accept those offers, especially if you've had a disadvantaged upbringing. That's one reason why, over the decades, the world of intercollegiate athletics has been full of scandals involving schools and boosters illicitly paying players, hosting sex and alcohol parties for potential recruits, or providing other illegal or rule-breaking incentives.
So the NCAA's rules about amateurism effectively result in some college athletes getting paid in secret, often by shady, unethical people who don't have the best long-term interests of the athletes in mind. That's why those who are in favor of improving college athlete compensation frequently argue that everything could be brought "above ground." By lifting the ban on pay for student athletes, transactions could happen out in the open, which could help drive away many of the shadiest elements of college sports and better protect the athletes' best interests.
Cons: Why Paying College Athletes Might Be a Bad Idea
The idea of college athletes being paid certainly seems reasonable when you consider all the factors above. But when you weigh additional factors like those below, you may arrive at a different conclusion. In fact, a lot of people think that the NCAA's rules for amateurism shouldn't be tampered with. They believe that treating student athletes like professionals could do much more harm than good. It could have negative consequences that ripple into other areas of higher education and impact non-athletes.
Here are some of the biggest reasons why many people argue that college athletes should not get paid:
1. The extra financial burden to schools
There's no doubt that a lot of college and university athletic departments are big, big spenders. But did you know that a huge number of them actually lose money when all is said and done? It's true, even at the top level of NCAA sports.
For example, in 2016, about 46 percent of football programs at Division I FBS schools spent more money on expenses than they generated in revenues. For men's basketball, that number was 53 percent. And for women's basketball, it was 100 percent. (Keep in mind that football and basketball are, by far, the largest generators of revenue for most college athletic departments. Other sports pale in comparison and almost always lose money.)
Despite losing money on sports, most schools in Division I athletics feel forced into spending a lot on their athletic programs in order to have any chance of competing with the relatively few schools that turn a profit from their sports. The flashiest spending is often a desperate ploy to generate more revenue. In order to balance their budgets, many athletic departments must receive non-athletic funds from their institutions—money that might have otherwise gone toward educational programs. (Schools will provide the money to keep their athletic programs going because they believe that sports teams serve as great marketing in the quest for higher enrollments.)
But that's why paying student athletes could be so problematic. College athletic departments may not be able to handle the extra financial burden. In order to stay competitive and recruit the best players possible, cuts may need to be made elsewhere. So, outside of football and basketball, other sports teams could be put on the chopping block. And if player salaries or bonuses get too high, then some educational programs may also get cut.
2. The great value of existing student-athlete compensation
Why should college athletes be paid salaries or bonuses when many of them already receive incredibly valuable scholarships that most non-athletes would feel super lucky to have? They get to attend school at a greatly reduced cost thanks to the money generated by students who pay tuition and fees, the generosity of alumni, and, in a lot of cases, the taxes paid by the public. According to NCAA scholarship data, more than 150,000 college and university athletes at NCAA Division I and II schools receive sports-related scholarships collectively worth over $2.9 billion each year.
Those student athletes are truly fortunate, especially when you consider the rarity of college athletic scholarships. (Out of all the high school athletes who graduate each year, only about two percent of them receive scholarships for college sports, as revealed by scholarship data from the NCAA.) These rare scholarships open the door to higher education for young people who may not have access to it without their exceptional athletic abilities.
The most athletically gifted of those students often receive full-ride scholarships that cover all tuition, fees, books, meals, and housing. They also frequently include monthly stipends to help cover the cost of various other living expenses. For a lot of college athletes, benefits and perks can also include things like:
- Free travel opportunities
- Free academic tutoring
- Free athletic shoes and clothing
- Free or subsidized medical coverage
- Free national or regional exposure to TV audiences
- Expert athletic and leadership coaching
- Chances to meet and form relationships with people all over the country
It's easy to see why college athletes are often perceived as spoiled and coddled. After all, that's a whole lot of opportunity that isn't available to the average college student in America. Thousands upon thousands of bright, academically gifted students never receive those perks even though they are just as deserving. Plus, an athlete's ability to play sports at a high level will end when he or she is still young, but the benefits of receiving a college or university education can last a lifetime. Those who dismiss the educational opportunity afforded by their athletic scholarships are often blind to the full long-term value of it.
But if you removed the scholarship model and paid salaries to college athletes instead, it's doubtful they would wind up with such a good deal. After all, they would owe taxes on those earnings. And they would likely have to fund their own education since their salaries may disqualify them for financial aid (other than unsubsidized student loans). In addition, they may need to hire accountants to help them prepare tax returns and keep track of their financial situation. At the end of the day, they may be significantly worse off under a salary model than they are under the scholarship model.
3. Erosion of the educational mission of colleges and universities
Should college athletes get paid if it means that institutions of higher learning will need to operate more like professional sports franchises than schools? Colleges and NCAA sports are already awkward bedfellows. But if student athletes start being paid, then the question becomes why schools should even bother with the "student" part. At that point, the athletes just become employees—promoters of their schools' brands. There would be little incentive to make athletes study. Even those athletes who chose to study would be tempted to chase dollars rather than degrees.
College sports were never meant to be anything more than extracurricular activities. The core purpose of colleges and universities is to educate students, not pay and develop athletes. School is for learning. Professional sports are for getting paid. They are fundamentally different entities.
That said, plenty of student athletes are committed to being students first. They sacrifice many hours to practice, train, and compete—without any notion that they'll ever be professional athletes. They choose to be athletes because they love it. But they don't lose sight of their main motivations for pursuing higher education itself.
If "student athletes" don't have that kind of commitment to their own education, then there's really no point to keeping them as part of their schools' student bodies. They make a mockery of higher education and the dedication that real students demonstrate.
4. Distortion of the true value of sports
It's hard to see why sports are important when money becomes such a big aspect of athletes' motivations. The drive for dollars can blind an athlete to the rewards that he or she is already reaping by participating in a sport. For example, here are some of the best non-monetary perks and outcomes of being a competitive athlete:
- Fun physical exercise
- A huge range of physical and mental health benefits
- Better muscle tone (and overall physical attractiveness)
- Higher confidence and self-esteem
- Greater capacity for cooperation
- More resilience (i.e., ability to bounce back from failure)
- Better personal discipline
- A greater sense of fairness
- The ability to handle defeat gracefully
- Greater appreciation and respect for the goals of others
In short, college sports offer great ways to develop personal character, mental resilience, and physical vitality. They also provide a lighter form of entertainment that people can bond over, sharing the thrills of healthy competition and unknown outcomes. When appreciated for their true value, sports can provide athletes with a major boost toward a successful future.
That's why many people fear that the things that make college sports great will get lost or distorted if student athletes start being treated as paid professionals. It could be bad for athletes and society as a whole.
5. Complications and unintended consequences
According to many people who support the current mission of the NCAA, paying athletes in college could open up a Pandora's box of problematic questions and issues. Here are some examples:
- How do you decide what a particular athlete is worth? Would each athlete receive the same amount, or would it be an open-market system? How often would athletes get paid? Where would the funds come from? The whole thing could be a logistical mess that colleges and universities are ill-equipped to deal with.
- Paying different amounts of money to athletes in different programs could potentially subject schools to lawsuits for Title IX violations. Title IX is a federal law that ensures equal opportunities for people of both genders when it comes to any educational programs or activities that receive financial assistance from the federal government. An open-market pay system would clash with such provisions. For instance, it could be problematic if men's basketball players got paid more than women's basketball players even though men's programs usually generate more revenue for their schools.
- In an open-market system, each college athlete would have to sign a unique business contract. But that kind of system could leave many athletes open to real exploitation unless they can afford a good attorney or honest sports agent to negotiate on their behalf. Plus, based on supply and demand, the most gifted athletes would naturally see their salaries rise while the more marginally talented athletes may see their salaries fall to levels that make them "second-class" participants on their teams.
- In a contract-based pay system, many athletes may choose where to play based on which schools provide the highest offers. And unless schools offer multi-year agreements, a lot of athletes could decide to transfer to higher-paying schools each year or hold out for more money. College athletes may also decide to unionize and bargain collectively for more money than colleges and universities can realistically afford. That could lead to lengthy and disruptive protests or lockouts on school campuses.
- College sports programs operate as non-profit entities. But trying to pass off athlete salaries as charitable expenses could potentially lead to a loss of that non-profit status and expose athletic departments to taxes they never had to pay before.
- Few college students know how to manage their money well. Scholarships at least provide some safeguards against financial irresponsibility since they can only be used for education-related expenses. But if athletes get paid like employed workers, they'll be free to make poor decisions with their money, which could negatively impact their future well-being. Schools would need to make greater efforts to educate their athletes about financial management and maybe even provide financial mentors.
A Possible Solution
All kinds of ideas have been floated for addressing the heated issue of college athlete compensation. Some people believe that nothing needs to change. Others think that only a radical transformation of the current college athletic system will solve the problems. But maybe the answer lies somewhere in the middle. And maybe we also need to address relevant issues outside of the college sports system.
Let's start by acknowledging that, for a lot of young athletes, college sports represent the only realistic paths to a better life. Whether because of poor schools, poverty, home instability, or childhood trauma, they simply don't have the same options as more privileged young people. Until we, as citizens, get more serious about demanding an end to poverty, a fix for the broken justice system, and major improvement to K-12 education in poor communities, we can't pretend that all college athletes have a real choice in whether to compete.
At the same time, we can't simply turn our colleges and universities into professional minor sports leagues. Their top priority should always be education. Every student athlete should be allowed to be a student first. That means limiting the number of hours required for training, practicing, and competing to something much more reasonable—perhaps a maximum of 20 hours per week instead of 40. It also means limiting the amount of time away from campus for travel and competition. (Yes, the NCAA and athletic conferences will need to schedule fewer games.)
In addition, something should probably be done to curb the excessive spending on coaches' salaries. In a system that's supposed to be about amateur athletics, it seems unethical to pay coaches millions of dollars a year. But it will probably take a small change to federal antitrust law to make something like a universal limit on coach pay possible. If it could be accomplished, it would allow more colleges and universities to balance the budgets of their athletic departments and perhaps invest more money into long-term health care for athletes who leave school with sports-related injuries.
Finally, the heart of the matter: Instead of paying student athletes directly, colleges and the NCAA should follow a model similar to the U.S. Olympic system. Amateur Olympic athletes are allowed to earn money from autographed memorabilia, endorsements, speaking gigs, and other sources. College athletes should be able to do the same thing. They should be able to profit from their own identities and make money in ways that are legal and in keeping with their abilities. After all, other students aren't restricted from making money from their talents while enrolled in school. It happens in art, music, theater, journalism, and other areas all the time. Why should athletes be any different?
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