One recurring dispute in college athletics has been over whether or not college athletes should be paid. I remember listening to debates over this when I was a college athlete and, decades later, I am still listening to them. One addition to the debate has been over licensing deals—for example, the NCAA has licensed the likeness of college athletes for use in video games and the players have received nothing for this. In fact, players are forbidden from receiving any specific compensation for such things.
The obvious counter is that the college athletes who are in the big money sports (football and basketball) do get compensation in the form of scholarships, coaching, medical care, etc. Given the cost of higher education these days, a full scholarship to a college can be worth $25,000 a year or even much more (my nephew is attending a college that costs about $42,000 a year).
Even athletes in the other sports (such as track, cross country, field hockey and volleyball) can receive compensation in the form of scholarships, coaching, and medical care—although typically less than that received by star athletes in the big money sports.
As such it can be asserted that athletes are already paid—in that they receive valuable compensation for their contributions. In fact, college athletes have been recognized as being employees with the right to unionize—at least for now (this is being challenged legally). As such, the actual dispute is over the amount and nature of the desired compensation—a classic employee-employer dispute.
Obviously enough, the NCAA and the colleges want to keep the player compensation to a minimal level. However, the fact that they would rather not provide better compensation is not proof that athletes should not receive more.
While the NCAA and colleges are fine with specific sorts of compensation (such as scholarships), they are rather draconian about college athletes receiving most other benefits. For example, if a college athlete places in a local road race and the award is a gift certificate, the athlete cannot accept it without violating the NCAA rules and possibly being booted from the team. While, as noted above, the NCAA and the college can license the likeness of a player for use in a video game, the player cannot. As such, the vast majority of the money made in college sports flows to the NCAA and the colleges, rather than the players.
On the face of it, the players should receive compensation commensurate with their contribution. For example, if a player’s likeness is licensed for use in a video game, he should receive a suitable percentage of that deal. As another example, if selling the TV rights to football games bring in millions of dollars, the players who appear on TV should get a proportional cut. Obviously, the value of what the players receive in terms of other compensation must be factored in as well as part of their pay.
In some cases, the athletes might already be getting fair compensation. However, the star athletes in the big money sports are probably not—given the money they are bringing in.
The main (and apparently only) argument that the NCAA and colleges advance for not providing commensurate compensation (that is, paying players what they legitimately earn) is that the college athlete should be an amateur who competes “for the love of the sport.”
I do admit that this has some appeal. When I was a college athlete, I competed for that reason—I loved to race. I still do—and these days I pay the entrance fees to run in road races (although I do still win from time to time). I get the idea of the amateur athlete who is not sullied by crass commerce and not driven by greed.
Of course, the amateur athlete who is unsullied by greed must be in a matching context: a complete amateur environment driven by the love of the sport. When I was a college athlete, I was in that context. I competed in cross country and track, both of which are not big money sports. I also went to a division III school—so there were no athletic scholarships. The coaches at the college generally followed the same model that is usually seen at public high schools—they had a primary job at the school and coaching was secondary. For example, the cross country coach was also an exercise physiology professor. The football coach also taught classes. So, we were all amateurs competing for the love of the sport—although we did get boxed lunches and the coaches got some pay.
When everyone is an amateur and the compensation is rather minimal, it certainly makes sense to not pay athletes and to hold them to the standards of being an amateur athlete (versus being a paid professional). However, this is not the case with the big money sports at the big schools.
First, the top coaches enjoy truly impressive salaries. There are twenty four college coaches who make over $3 million a year. Interestingly, the highest paid public employee in many states is a college football or basketball coach.
Second, college football is a multi-billion dollar industry and college basketball brings in millions for the colleges and NCAA. Most of this comes from TV revenue. While the players get some of this in the form of scholarships and other compensation, the vast majority of it ends up going to others, such as well-paid NCAA officials.
Given the extremely generous compensation for everyone else, it would certainly seem that these college sports are not amateur in any meaningful sense of the term and that the context is not one defined by a love of the game. Rather, this is a big money industry in which those doing the vast majority of the work receive very little while a very few benefit greatly from their efforts. In short, college sports mirrors the larger society. The lie used to avoid justly compensating the athletes is that they are amateurs who are supposed to play for the love of the game. Thus, there is a clear inconsistency between the reality of the situation and what is expected of the athletes.
In terms of becoming consistent, there seem to be two options. The first is to make college sports amateur and played for the love of the sport. This would require following the model of amateur athletics that I mentioned above: minimal compensation for everyone, coaches who are professors first, athletes who are students first, no big money deals, and so on. As should be blindingly obvious, this is not going to happen.
The second option is to accept that these big money sports are simply a college version of the pro-sports and they should follow that model: the big money remains, but the athletes are recognized for what they really are—professional athletes. This will mean less money for those who are currently enjoying that massive funnel of cash, but this is what is morally and honesty require.
Sports that are not big money and colleges that are not in the big money can still operate in the spirit of amateur sports and those that are motivated solely by the love of the game and who wish to be true amateurs can compete in those sports or at those schools.