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Should College Athletes Be Paid?

Unanswered Questions

College athletes shed blood, sweat, and tears in their sports competition. Universities make millions from admissions fees to sporting events, sponsorships, deals with athletic companies like Nike, and television deals. Is it time to recognize the work of college athletes by giving them monetary compensation?

The time is right to reconsider this issue since March Madness ended last night. Indeed, the debate over paying college athletes is now under consideration on Capitol Hill where Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn) criticized the NCAA for failing to “fairly compensate” athletes for their labor. In an article in the Bloomberg News, Murphy pointed to the $14-billion-a-year campus sports industry for spending more on coach salaries than player scholarships and concluding that the system enriches apparel companies and athletic companies at the expense of athletes.

According to a report released by Murphy titled “Madness, Inc,” the revenue collected by college sports programs rose from $4 billion in 2003 to $14 billion in 2018. However, even in the richest conferences only 12 percent of revenue goes to athlete grants-in-aid whereas 16 percent goes to coaches’ salaries. The highest paid football and men’s basketball coaches earn an average annual salary of $5.2 million and $3.2 million, according to the report.

Everyone is getting rich except for the athletes. Add to that the recent trend of athletic conferences signing deals for their own cable stations and we can see the thirst for more advertisement revenues are taking greater advantage of the work of the college athletes. College athletes paid

According to Sports Business Daily, American Athletic Conference schools are about to get a nice boost to their coffers, thanks to their new TV deal with ESPN. The new agreement is reportedly a 12 year deal, running from 2020-2021 through the 2031-32 academic year, is worth an average of $83.3 million a year. That comes out to just short of $7 million a year per school. The current deal pays a little less than $2 million, so that represents a very significant jump.

Of all the reasons to pay college athletes for their services, the one that stands out most for me is the colleges’ ability to trade on the use of athletes’ names, images, and likenesses via commercial opportunities and social media. It seems unjust to make so much  money that way and not compensate the athletes. How would you like it if your company used your name, image, and made deals with other companies to trade on your talents and you were not compensated at all?

To be sure, there are a lot of unanswered questions about paying college athletes. There’s no question there would be a disparity between what student-athletes could earn at the big sports schools versus smaller ones. Does that mean top athletes would be less likely to go to the smaller schools? If so, how might that affect their competitiveness? Is it fair to students who attend these colleges to be deprived of routing for a high-level collegiate sports team?

Another problem is some sports don’t generate enough funds for the colleges and universities to pay athletes, i.e., rowing, tennis, and so on. Some students who work just as hard as those in football and basketball would earn much less than the latter. Also, women’s programs produce less revenue so is at fair for them to be paid less than the men?

Doubters will say collegiate sports are corrupted by paying student athletes and such a practice turns amateurs into professionals while attending college. That may be the case but look at what has happened to Olympic athletes over the years. In the U.S., for years only amateur athletes were allowed to compete, and they went up against professionals from other countries. As other countries learned to train athletes to become better than U.S. amateurs and gain ground in Olympic victories, we changed the model and allowed professional basketball players to compete with professionals from other countries.

My solution is to carve out a percentage of all revenues earned from these collegiate sports by the university to student athletes. On average, the top ten grossing universities earn close to $200 million in revenue and $180 million in expenses (including coaches’ salary). I don’t know what the “ideal” figure would be, and one based on the fairness, but I do believe the time has come to provide a share of the income from sports.

Perhaps the amount of money allocated to student athletes can be placed in a trust fund while they are college athletes so they don’t spend it unwisely. Most players on a college athletic team will not be drafted by the pros and have nothing to show for their efforts.  At least they will have something to get started in life; compensation for giving four years of their lives to the game.

Steve Spurrier, the former University of South Carolina football coach, has said college athletes should be paid $3,500-$4,000 per year to help with expenses. This is not enough from my point of view, but the issue right now is whether to pay them, not the amount.

Paying student athletes has many obstacles not the least of which is there would be obvious Title IX implications and not every school nationally would be able to pay student-athletes as much. Plus, football and basketball couldn't be the only sports to pay student-athletes. It would have to be a national plan and it would have to be a plan for all collegiate sports.

The time is right to pay these athletes. A possible side benefit is they stay in college for all four years, not be one-and-done, and get a good college education.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on April 8, 2019. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.