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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.

12 Responses

  1. William, I hope your day will be an enjoyable one.

    • Thank you. 🙂 Yes, it is my birthday.

      • Here’s a lovely present for you, William:

        Joe Manchin just told Chuck Schumer that he will vote “YES!” today to advance debate on the For The People Act. The vote is scheduled for 5:30pm ET.

        Hooray!!!

        • Still, with the filibuster, doesn’t it take 60 votes to actually advance debate? So Manchin’s vote is just symbolic.

          There goes air out of the birthday balloon. Oh, well…

  2. So Manchin’s vote will show that Senate Democrats are kinda sorta maybe unified on voting rights, which might kinda sorta maybe help us in the 2022 elections. Or not.

    In case no one noticed, Joe “I Love Me Some Filibuster” Manchin is a real pain in the ass.

  3. Manchin and Sinema may not be the only Senate Democrats standing in the way of getting rid of the filibuster. Mark Kelly, Maggie Hassen and John Hickenlooper, as well as Dianne Feinstein and Patrick Leahy are reportedly less than enthusiastic about abolishing it. Isn’t that encouraging?

  4. Just the facts, ma’am:

    Democrats in Washington aren’t going to get any legislation passed without abolishing the filibuster.

    That has to be the focus now. Abolish the filibuster.

  5. William, with all respect: Why should college coaches and ADs be paid millions, and the football/ basketball players get nothing? I would challenge the valuation you put on their “free” “education” — for the most part Division I athletes get a poor facsimile of that while they attend practices and away games while taxing/tiring their bodies with frequent pro level workouts. Their degrees are too often larded with gut courses and of little value because everyone knows how little they actually learned in class. They are in effect working full time as athletes and not paid; the “student” half of “student athlete” is all too often a complete sham.

    Furthermore, college athletes take a very real risk of career ending injury before they get their chance to turn pro. They take all the risk and the school gets all the revenue.

    As for women’s athletics and parity: let’s support the WNBA, women in golf and tennis, and the US women’s soccer team, they are the ones leading the push for equity. When women pros get the same sponsorship deals as men parity will follow in other athletic venues.

    You are trying to support a jerry built system that is, well, upside down, and if paying employees market rate will blow it up that is as it should be. If indeed market pay for athletes destroys the NCAA I for one will rejoice. Universities should be about teaching and research, and it says far too much about our society when a college football coach like Nick Saban or Bear Bryant is the highest paid state employee. Is that who we really want to be?

    • Centaur, my response would be that these players are not employees. if they are employees, then they must pay taxes on money or benefits they receive.. I do understand your points, and they are valid. But again, no one requires young men and women to play college athletics. For some, the athletic scholarship is their only way to get into college. You do make a very legitimate point about the fact that the degree may not mean as much if the courses they take are not really academic. But there are certainly many college students who participate in athletics, maybe not in the ‘major’ sports,” who do obtain a valuable degree, and even speak to that fact, that the scholarship allowed them to pursue academics, while paying for tuition.

      The system can well blow up, and it may, that was my point. And yes, coaches and ADs are paid a lot. But I do not see the athletes as exploited. Is a member of the golf or tennis team exploited? We would focus on football and basketball players in that regard, but then we are choosing which athletes to consider as exploited? If the football programs end, so do all the other sports; the universities cannot afford to pay for the costs of athletic programs which make no money. And then, why should the regular students have to pile up student debt, as most of them have no scholarships?

      There are a lot of young men and women who play athletics in high school, mostly because they choose to just for the fun of it, though some do hope for the pro career. Are they exploited? No, because the high schools generally do not make money from it? We would not consider the athletes at high schools to be employees. Nor would the university students who put on plays or concerts which people attend, be generally considered as employees, although the schools might make a little money from these events. Should they be; if athletes are paid, should someone in the school orchestra or band or theatre group be able to ask for a salary?

      Again, if we look at athletes as employees, they must pay taxes on earnings; the schools must pay Workers’ Compensation insurance for them, and perhaps pay lifetime benefits if they are injured; the athletes theoretically could sue for wrongful termination if they are benched. There would actually be some schools which would put up with all of this, because they value winning at sports so much, and do see it as a profitable business. But most would simply give up college athletics, and would only have intramural sports which students can choose to play or not, with no scholarships, no travel around the country, just play if you choose, after classes. That might be better altogether, and no one could complain about young football players being exploited by anybody; the NFL would have to pay for developmental leagues for them and they could skip college. Going to a college football game, which is a fun and bonding experience for many college students, and the original concept behind college sports programs, would not exist any longer.

      • I agree with Centaur’s point of view. It’s time to stop exploiting college athletes.

        The world has changed since Baby Boomers went to college and the world of college sports has changed as well. It’s a big business now, not just a fun and bonding experience for students and alums.

        Nostalgia is a nice place to visit but we can’t live there permanently.

        • Some things to consider; and i don’t expect you or anyone else to figure it all out, but of course someone has to set the rules, unless we are going to simply make it free market gone wild, and any school can pay anything it likes to any players, and not pay the other ones.

          So key questions, are, how much can a school allocate to paying the members of its sports teams? Does every athlete in every sport, man or woman, get the same monthly amount? If not, there will be lawsuits under the labor laws; equal pay, discrimination. If you do pay everyone the same, then if you have 300 scholarship athletes, and you have $10 million a year for salaries, everyone gets about $2,500 a month for a calendar year, not very much, since at most schools, the scholarship is worth more. You would also be paying some of the sons and daughters of wealthy families for being on the lacrosse or crew teams.

          What if universities cut out all sports teams but men’s football and basketball, and enough women’s teams to equal the 100 or so male athletes in those two sports? Why would you want to have a curling team if you had to pay them each $30,000 a year? So you get rid of all of those, if this indeed is purely a matter of making profits and paying the players who bring in the money. Or do those minor sports athletes file a class action suit, and force universities to pay for all those programs? Warm weather schools have no curling or ice hockey teams, are they required to fund them? If not, then a cold weather university would seem to have the similar right to choose what sports to fund.

          If we should only pay athletes based on the money they bring into the schools, so that they are not exploited, then who negotiates the contracts? Is there some kind of formula to determine how much they should be paid? Do the schools which make more profits, pay more out in salary, based on money brought in? Since the smaller sports make no profits, is there a minimum that those athletes make? Again, if this is the case, then the only rational move for schools to make is to cut out most of those programs, or they are paying out millions to athletes who don’t bring any money in. Anyone who wants to pay college athletes, has to at least consider how it would be done. Very few have even tried to get to that part.

          • Ah, the lawyers will take care of all those problems and be well compensated for their hard work. You can bet on that.

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