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My Thoughts on Paying College Student-Athletes

I think that in the eagerness to turn this controversial issue, now decided at a smaller level for now, by the Supreme Court, but sure to be expanded by more cases, into an employer vs. wage slaves issue, the realities are being passed over.

I know that some people (even here!) have no interest in sports in general; and there are some sports fans who do not care about college sports. I grew up following college football and basketball, and I have always liked those sports much more than their pro equivalents, the NFL and the NBA. So I have a fan’s bias here. But I think that I can understand the arguments, even though it is my opinion that paying college athletes could destroy college sports, which I realize that some people would be in favor of, though I would certainly miss it, as would millions of fans, students, and alumni.

I am under no illusion that college sports is this idealized realm. The best athletes have often gotten all sorts of perquisites at the schools where winning is very important. The NCAA, which is far from a paragon of virtue, has tried to protect the amateurism of college sports; sometimes they even sanction schools which are found to have offered illegal inducements, mostly money, to recruits. But some schools ignore this, and find ways to get around it . College football, never a level playing field, is in danger of being mostly dominated by Southern schools, where football is king, more important than academics, or even the job security of the school president, many of whom have gotten fired for their teams not winning big.

Those schools will do almost anything to win, it is a way of life to them. They spend millions for head coaches, assistant coaches, and training facilities. And the athletes there are treated almost like kings, except that they are not allowed to be directly paid. The universities often make millions from their sports revenue, mostly in football, some in basketball; and so there are many who see this as a totally unfair, exploitation of the athletes. That the university heads are mostly White, and the players mostly, though certainly not all, Black, is part of the political nature of the outcries to “start paying the players.’

Well, here is how I see it, and some will certainly disagree. The athletes, who must be in good standing at the university to participate (I know that can be circumvented, though the NCAA does try to monitor it), are getting benefits. Tuition, otherwise almost prohibitive, is free. Books and supplies are free. Tutoring is usually offered. A student-athlete usually gets the choice of paid-for on-campus housing, or an amount of money to be paid directly for near-campus apartment housing. At a typical college, a regular student who is not good enough or interested enough to play sports, or who needs to concentrate on academics, graduates with maybe $150,000 in student loan debt, while the four-year scholarship athlete has close to none. This is not an inconsiderable advantage, and it goes to anyone who is given a scholarship in any sport.

And of course those athletes who are good enough to play in the pros, can make tens of millions of dollars. They are not being forced to go to college and play sports. They do it either because they love to play, and they enjoy the competition; or they do not expect to play pro ball, but they want the free education and its benefits; or they do expect to have a pro career, and make hundreds of millions if they are very good, or tens of millions if they are a reserve. So it is hardly a wage slave proposition. Again, they could skip college, but the pro leagues use college ball as almost a training ground for young athletes, and they have no interest in spending a lot of money on developmental leagues, though there is now one for basketball players

Back to the crux of it; how would student-athletes be paid? Do note that football brings in the big money; basketball programs mostly break even, if that, though the highest level men’s basketball programs do well.The other sports, men’s and women’s athletics, all lose money, except in the rarest of programs, like maybe University of Connecticut women’s basketball, or Oklahoma State men’s wrestling. So football subsidizes all the other sports. If college football with its big crowds disappeared, the other sports would become intramural sports, no scholarships could be afforded by universities, which unfortunately have grown to depend for their literal survival on the money that football brings. There are exceptions, like the Ivy League, which does not give out sports scholarships, or the posh private schools, but most college donors care about the success of the football team.

Then we have the issue of Title IX, part of the Educational Act of 1972, which forbid gender discrimination in federally funded college programs. This certainly seems unassailable as to its need, but it has had some unfortunate effects. Women do not play college football, or any form of tackle football. Title IX requires that the amount of money allocated to men’s and women’s college sports be the same. This means as many scholarships for women athletes as for male athletes. But the many schools which field men’s football programs, may give out up to 85 football scholarships, as you need full squads because of the number of football injuries. So how does a school comply with Title IX, and make up the disparity? By cutting men’s sports Many schools, including UCLA and USC, which along with Stanford, have won the most titles, because of the warm-weather sports advantage they have, were forced to cut out men’s programs which were Olympic quality. There are several sports where UCLA fields only women’s teams now.

We can debate this, but it also impacts the concept of paying student-athletes. How would universities do that? Bidding for the best players out of high school? This would of course turn “college sports” into minor league pro sports. The universities with the most money, and the greatest wish to win big, would offer millions, where a school like UCLA, which is under the mantle of the University of California system, would not be allowed to do that. A private school like USC, with a devoted alumni football base, might. There would probably be twenty schools or so which would get all the top players, which might seem like the case now, but is not, though they get many of them. The schools without the massive resources would not be able to field teams to compete with the best programs, and wouldn’t even try.

And how would the players be paid? Negotiating with the Athletic Directors? What if they had a really good freshman season, could they then negotiate for more? Could they leave for a school which would double their salary? This would of course produce chaos. And there would be a lot of regular students who would be infuriated to have to go along counting their dollars to pay for things, while a few top athletes, fellow students, were living in fancy houses, with multiple cars to drive around.

Or would the rule be that every scholarship athlete, in any sport, gets the same amount? There are a number of college sports, so that would vastly reduce the amount of each scholarship. And women athletes would certainly be entitled to claim that they should be paid the same as men. So would a member of the women’s golf team be paid as much as the star quarterback of the football team which brings in millions, while the golf team always loses money? And on that football team, does the quarterback get more money than the second-string tackle, or should they all be paid the same? Who decides that, the free market?

I hope we can see that these issues are a lot more difficult than some proponents of “pay the athletes!” would admit. I think that it might lead to the end of all scholarships for college sports, which would end up hurting many students and their families, not at all what the people who see only one side of it, intended. There are more important issues to deal with, but it is important to note that turning such issues into emotionally charged arguments about “plantation mentality” and “slave labor” mostly come from those who really have no plan of how to implement any of it. Maybe somebody will be able to , but it is going to be far from easy.