FOOTE: Paying Student Athletes is Unrealistic
The Hot Stove

Money. It’s the most influential, important aspect of society, and just as in the rest of the world, it has an enormous influence on college sports. The NCAA brings in nearly $1 billion in revenue annually. But with that money comes huge controversy. The NCAA isn’t like normal corporations, where each person under employment receives monetary compensation for his work. The NCAA has over 420,000 student athletes playing under its jurisdiction, and not one legally receives a compensation of money in exchange for his work.

Is that right? Is it fair that the NCAA as well as individual universities bring in huge amounts of cash through sports but don’t pay their players?

It may sound simple. Looking at the surface, it’s obvious that these players should be paid, but the movement towards paying athletes hasn’t made much progress, if any at all, in recent years. I may be in the minority, but I hope it stays that way. In a perfect world, I would prefer if the players got paid, but the NCAA is far from perfect. Quite frankly, there are just too many obstacles preventing athletes from being paid.

First of all, I don’t think it’s completely right to blame the NCAA in all of this. When the NCAA set out as college athletics’ governing body, it was perfectly reasonable to refrain from paying athletes. The players were students first and amateur athletes second. Also, there was no way that the NCAA, or even collegiate institutions, could have prepared for the revenue that was in store. Amateur sports aren’t popular in any other country in the world, so how could anyone have foreseen Americans packing 100,000 fans into a stadium to watch 18-year-olds hit each other?

So, in a perfect world, the NCAA would have predicted its success and paid its athletes from the start, but again, it’s not a perfect world.

So why shouldn’t the NCAA start paying them now? The answer is actually quite simple. Despite the huge amounts of revenue, there just isn’t enough money. The NCAA is too stingy to fix the problem itself, and the schools just wouldn’t be able to afford it. Big schools would be fine, but the smaller private schools would suffer huge losses.

Take Georgetown, for example. Georgetown’s only sport that consistently produces significant revenue is basketball, but the basketball team doesn’t necessarily produce enough money to support the rest of the athletic programs if athletes were to be paid. As a result, sports teams that don’t make money, such as rowing, volleyball and sailing, would get cut, and that’s unfair to those athletes.

One potential solution to this problem would be to provide a different salary for different sports, based on the revenue that those sports bring in. However, this would open up another series of problems, as athletes in “unprofitable” sports would still be providing what amounts to free labor.

Player salaries would also create issues in recruiting. Would schools offer a flat rate to athletes, or would bigger schools be able to offer larger sums of cash? The latter would eliminate the problem of illegal benefits and shady recruiting, but to make it fair, the NCAA would have to enforce a simple flat rate, maybe in the form of an hourly wage. But this would only make recruiting violations more common. Allowing money to flow freely from university to athlete would only promote the offering of illegal benefits, and the NCAA would lose control of everything, if it hasn’t already.

Ultimately, I think it’s best for the NCAA to just stand firm and for people to just accept it as something they can’t change. It is their fault, technically, as they were the ones that made amateur athletics in the United States such a profitable industry.


Jake Foote is a rising sophomore in the College. The Hot Stove appears every Thursday.

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One Comment

  1. You say that it would be “unfair” to cut back on sports to ensure the players get paid. If your definition of unfair is “some people are denied opportunities so that others can have opportunities,” then the current system is completely unfair. A non-athlete student loses many opportunities by having to subsidize non-profitable sports through tuition and fees. Even more egregiously, you’re arguing that 15 basketball players (and at some schools 80 football players) have to put the rest of the Athletic Department on their backs and go without pay so that the money they produce can be spread around.

    You also assume that the model you describe, where the money generated by basketball/football goes to smaller sports, is global, which isn’t true. Almost all schools (the entire Division III, for example) get by without a big basketball/football cash cow to subsidize everybody else.

    There’s also a problem when you say that athletes at all schools would have to be paid equally to make recruiting fair. Recruiting isn’t “fair” now: the rich schools scoop up all the best talent by offering better facilities, coaches, tutoring, etc. Over the last ten years, more than 99% of the top 100 high school football prospects went to BCS schools. Letting these schools get the best recruits by offering higher salaries wouldn’t change anything. If anything, it would help smaller schools by giving them more avenues in which to compete with the big schools.

    And frankly, I reject the whole premise of the column. You observe that “the NCAA is too stingy” and then give up and say “oh well, just accept what you can’t change.” Even if your subsequent arguments about why schools can’t afford to pay the players were valid, the fact that the NCAA is stingy is no reason to put the burden on the schools. It’s unconscionable that individuals and corporations rake in money while the people who actually produce the money go without. Letting these exploiters off the hook just because they won’t willingly give up their privilege is outrageous.

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