Should College Athletes Get Paid?

Maybe it was the annual spectacle of March Madness. Maybe it was the Jim Tressel imbroglio at Ohio State. Maybe it was the lingering aftereffects of the Cam Newton scandal. Maybe it was Ed O’Bannon’s ongoing lawsuit, which contends that former NCAA players should be able to profit from uses of their image or likeness (as in video games, rebroadcasts, DVDs, etc.).

Whatever the reason, journalists have ignited a fresh debate over the merits of paying college athletes. Last week, PBS and HBO each aired major specials on the relative injustices of a system that allows players to generate billions in revenue each year but prohibits them from receiving a dime of it. Coaches can sign multimillion-dollar contracts, endorse products, and rake in lucrative speaking fees — that’s all in the game. (Just ask Alabama’s Nick Saban.) But if a star quarterback sells even one autographed jersey, he is violating NCAA rules.

The perceived unfairness of those rules has spurred critics to demand a radical overhaul. It is time, they say, to give the players — “the employees” — regular wages or salaries. Broadly speaking, there are three common objections to this idea:

(1) “Top-tier college athletes already do get paid, in the form of lucrative scholarships. Moreover, those with professional aspirations benefit from critical training and exposure that enhances their draft prospects.”

(2) “What part of ‘student-athlete’ don’t you understand? Turning these kids into de facto salaried professionals would irrevocably transform college sports, make a further mockery of the ‘academic mission’ that schools claim to be pursuing, and exacerbate corruption.”

(3) “Yes, it’s unfair that certain football and basketball players produce enormous riches for their schools and don’t get to reap the spoils. But paying them would be a logistical nightmare; indeed, it would prove impossible to devise a truly ‘fair’ revenue-distribution scheme. There are better ways to make college sports more equitable.”

The third objection is the most compelling. Paying student-athletes represents an ethically dubious solution to a legitimate problem. But the strongest argument against it is a practical one: How exactly would the payment system operate? Between 2004 and 2009, fewer than 7 percent of all Division I sports programs generated positive net revenue, according to NCAA data. Fewer than 12 percent of all Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools — 14 out of 120 — did so in fiscal year 2009. For that matter, the NCAA reports that only 50 percent to 60 percent of FBS football and basketball programs make money.

In other words, a significant chunk of top-level FBS programs are losing money. Should those programs be obliged to pay their football and basketball players, even though they aren’t actually producing a net profit? Or should only moneymaking programs be forced to offer player salaries? Would it be “fair” to have a system in which roughly half of all FBS schools paid their players while the other half didn’t? Do we really want blue-chip recruits picking a college based on financial compensation? Wouldn’t the wealthiest programs just scoop up all the best talent?

Meanwhile, would each salaried player on a given team be paid the same amount? If not, who would decide whether the All-American linebacker deserved more money than the All-American wide receiver, or whether the star point guard was more valuable than the star power forward? Would 18-year-olds be negotiating “contracts” with officials in their athletic department? Would they be hiring agents before high-school graduation? And how would all this affect those sports programs that depend on football and basketball revenue to stay afloat?

To pose these questions is to realize that paying college athletes is simply unfeasible. Still, the current NCAA rules are deeply flawed, and many players are indeed being exploited. Let’s face it: Big-time college football and basketball basically function as minor-league systems for the NFL and the NBA, respectively, while creating massive profits for everyone except the athletes. Scholarships are financially valuable, sure. But according to PBS, “The average scholarship falls about $3,000 short of covering” an athlete’s “essential” college expenses. Closing that gap — i.e., boosting scholarship aid — would be an easy way to help cash-strapped players meet their living costs.

Renowned sports economist Andrew Zimbalist proposed such a reform two years ago in a New York Times online symposium. He also made a broader point about the NCAA’s stated commitment to amateurism: “It is one thing to demand that a college athlete lose amateur status when he or she signs a professional contract, but quite another to bar an athlete from entering a professional draft or hiring an agent to explore the opportunities of going pro.”

In the same symposium, University of New Haven business professor Allen Sack (who played football at Notre Dame during the 1960s) noted that college sports have already effectively become professionalized. “Given the N.C.A.A.’s abandonment of time-honored amateur principles,” he argued, “no good reason exists for preventing athletes from engaging in the same entrepreneurial activities as their celebrity coaches. Big-time college athletes should be able to endorse products, get paid for speaking engagements and be compensated for the use of their likenesses on licensed products. They should be allowed to negotiate an actual contract with the N.B.A. as part of a final project in a finance class, and have an agent.”

Those changes seem reasonable enough. Writing in the 2009 Times forum, former Penn basketball player Stephen Danley suggested another: Schools should take a slice of the profits generated by their revenue sports and add a fifth-year option to athletic scholarships. As Danley explained, many student-athletes competing at the highest levels just do not have the time to handle a normal academic load. “In certain programs, players aren’t even allowed to take enough classes to graduate in four years” (emphasis added). Of course, some players were never adequately prepared for higher education in the first place and wouldn’t be attending university at all if not for their skills on the field or the court. But if America’s richest college-sports programs are going to continue treating many “student-athletes” as full-time athletes, they should at least give those athletes the financial means to return for an extra year of schooling and complete a degree after their playing days are over.

(Cross-posted at The Corner.)

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