For all the talk of overpaid and overindulged professional athletes in this country, it's a wonder that we so seldom seriously discuss whether or not college athletes should be paid. As a matter of fact, the subject only comes up two times a year as far as I can tell: first, during college football's Bowl season and, second, a few months later during March Madness (the annual NCAA Basketball Tournament). Why? My educated guess is because that's when a lot of people have a lot of (wagered) money tied up in these sports and, hence, have to think about how much money these sports generate. The truth is, NCAA athletics is a big money pie-- not as big as professional athletics, of course, but that's only if you don't include the almost 5 BILLION dollars generated by (still illegal) gambling on collegiate sports-- and the way that NCAA pie gets divided up makes no sense. The New York Times blog is running a discussion forum on the topic right now under the title "March Money Madness," in which they've solicited positions on the topic from academics, experts and former college athletes. As I've said before on this blog, I think college athletes should be paid. Here's why:
Basically, I see college athletes as unpaid (or grossly underpaid) workers for the university. Sure, they get scholarships (which sometimes are equivalent to upwards of $200K over four years of eligibility). Sure, they basically receive a "free" education (no small deal in these times, when more and more college graduates find themselves smothering under student loans for most of the rest of their lives). And, yes, for the athletes who go on in their sport (which is very, very few), they get the best "pre-professional" training available. In conferences like the SEC and the Big Ten, the very best among them live the lives of demi-gods. But what are they trading for those "perks"? And is the trade fair?
These kids generate a LOT of money. They make money for the school, for the sponsors, for the NCAA, for the conferences, for the other sports programs, for university libraries, stadiums and buildings--not to mention the big-time flow generated for all the bookies and gamblers. But the NCAA regulates college athletes' lives (especially football and basketball players) with an iron fist. They can't be taken out to meals or be bought a pair of shoes or a watch (or a Hummer). They have curfews and meal restrictions and insane travel schedules. Every one of their minute misbehaviors are subject to (sometimes national) scrutiny... AND they still have to study, maintain decent grades, and try to be "regular" college students with families, friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, and all of the other stressors of collegiate life.
So they get scholarships... but a lot of college students get scholarships. Do we expect the same sacrifices from the non-athletes? Hardly. Most college scholarships don't come along with the rigorous personal restrictions that athletes sign off for, nor do they come along with the constant threat of life-altering injury or public humiliation. Other students who enjoy scholarships aren't forced to miss holidays with their families, or try to manage end-of-semester exams and assignments in the midst of conference playoffs or Bowl games or March Madness. And no other recipients of collegiate scholarships are constantly treated as if they aren't "real" students.
I actually think that ALL college athletes should be paid, though I genuinely believe there's a stronger argument for paying football and basketball players than the others. (And this is not an attempt to promote even more collegiate gender disparity... at universities like UT and UCONN, the women basketball players are as important as any male athlete.) College athletes secure the "brands" of their colleges--and, thus, help to promote their schools and recruit for them--more than almost anything else. Division 1 universities endlessly promote the myth that college sport is "amateur," but the only thing that confirms that myth is the fact that the athletes aren't paid. Everything else about college sport is professional.
I don't have a ready solution to this problem. I like Allen Sack's suggestion that the athletes should be allowed "to endorse products, to get paid for speaking engagements and be compensated for the use of their likenesses on licensed products." I also like Stephen Danly's idea of guaranteeing a fifth year to athletic scholarships. If college athletes aren't going to be equitably compensated for their work, they should at the very least be provided with scholarship money that doesn't fall an average of $2000 short of their basic living expenses. As someone who works at a Division III college (where no athletic scholarships are awarded), I find that my athlete-students are some of the best students, mostly because their extra sports responsibilities require that they be very disciplined and committed. It's not hard to see how much stress this puts on them, but it is hard to cry foul about it since they knew what they were getting into when they decided to attend a Div. III school. For Division I athletes, though, we should cry foul. It's just not fair.