Should College Athletes Be Paid: Pros and Cons

Should College Athletes Be Paid: Pros and Cons

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Have you heard of the salary controversy regarding college athletes?

The issue is that college sports are not just about athletes competing against each other anymore. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry, and third-party businesses outside the educational institution’s scope are involved.

While the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) earns billions in revenue, it prohibits athletes from earning a single penny.

If college students challenge this prohibition, they will no longer be qualified to participate in any of the events organized by the NCAA. And if they’re unable to play, they will lose their athletic scholarship.

The big question is: what are the arguments for and against paid college athletes?

I have gathered the weightiest arguments and an in-depth analysis of their validity.

Pro 1: Large Revenue Generated by College Athletes

The main argument in favor of paying college athletes is that they bring in a large net amount of revenue to their schools.

  • True: The NCAA made $18.9 billion in a single year (source). This money is spread through administrators, athletic directors, coaches, and media outlets. However, college athletes are not compensated for their contributions.
  • True: Several brands — Nike, Adidas, Reebok, and plenty of others — pay schools’ athletics departments $100 million a year. They also pay coaches a different sum to encourage students to wear them in unison. However, they also give student-athletes a nearly unlimited supply of shoes and sportswear.
  • True: College athletes generate indirect revenues for their schools. The more influential the athlete, the more effective they are at inviting enrollees. This fact indirectly increases the internal revenue of the institution. Fans of the team are likely to buy any product businesses sell as long as the team’s logo or the player’s face is embellished on the merchandise. Other sources of income come from fundraising events, digital materials, and e-games (EA Sports earned over $80 million in revenue for their NCAA Football games).

Takeaway: Athletes bring in a huge portion of educational institutions’ income. Compensating athletes for their contribution would only be fair.

Con 1: Paying Athletes Could Lead to Legal Issues

The main argument against paying college athletes is that this would lead to legal issues threatening collegiate sports’ integrity.

  • True: If paid, whether by salary or stipend, the athletes would become university employees. Collegiate sport is not a profession; paying college athletes would represent legal issues under Title IX, which requires that institutions accepting federal funds offer equal opportunities to men and women (source).
  • False: An appeal court ruled that the N.C.A.A. was not free to limit compensation and benefits tied to education for college athletes (source). Such benefits would be distinguishable from professional salaries. To back this decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA had violated antitrust rules and should pay athletes for education-related benefits, though it did not rule on broader compensation questions.

Takeaway: Even though paying college athletes a salary would lead to legal issues, it is illegal to limit educational compensation for college athletes.

Pro 2: College Athletes Study Less

What good will the athlete’s scholarship do when he can’t find time to work on them?

Another argument in favor of paying student-athletes is that these students sacrifice their studies to play at a competitive level. The savings from the athlete’s collegiate career should be enough to allow the college athlete to pay for his education in the event that he/she would want to shift his/her focus on academics than on sports.

  • True: College athletes dedicate around 30 hours per week to training, leaving little time to keep up with academic commitments. Taking roughly 6-8 hours of their time each day for training restricts them from focusing on their studies.
  • True: Even if the athlete finds time for it, the resulting grade would be unsatisfactory. Athletes are already stressed and drained from the exhausting daily training. This lack of energy to study will negatively affect the athlete’s GPA to a point where he/she would become a poor choice for employers after graduating from college. Thus, eliminating the very benefit of having free education. This compromise even led to illiteracy.

Takeaway: College athletes learn less than regular students. It would only be fair to compensate for this loss of knowledge with a decent revenue.

Con 2: Not Every Sports Team Brings in the Same Value

A weighty argument against paying college athletes is that not all sports are popular. That means athletes who are exceptionally skilled at not-so-popular sports, such as swimming and softball, would not be given a chance to complete their studies through sponsorship and scholarship programs by the NCAA.

  • True: The majority of money generated by the NCAA goes to scholarships for Division I and II athletes — evenly. Other fractions go to improving school facilities, whether relevant to improving athletic performance or not.
  • True: Paying athletes could mean losing scholarships as compensation. When that happens, those who participate in these not-so-popular sports will probably have a more difficult time as the reward is too little. Only those who are in football and basketball will benefit from this shift. Amateurism, which is what NCAA stands for, will be lost. And the interest to play at a competitive intercollegiate level will cease to exist for those who won’t get paid.  If the aforementioned becomes a reality, it would be easier for everyone to skip college as it defeats its purpose.

Takeaway: For the NCAA, student-athletes should be playing sports with education as its primary driver. Funding the student-athletes would be a massive shift in budget distribution. When college scholarships are non-existent, student-athletes may prefer to play simply because of the pay that comes with it. 

Pro 3: Financial Benefits to Student-Athletes

Another argument is that for the majority of athletes, a free pass to college is their way out of their financial hardship. Despite their expensive sportswear, which comes from their sponsors, they are living a financially difficult life. Allowing them to get paid will give them a chance to combat poverty.

Furthermore, it could also be a significant driving factor for them not to misuse their money. If college athletes get paid, they will be more in control of their subjects. This option is better than being forced into an entire program they can’t complete due to the lack of time.

  • True: The majority of student-athletes are poor (86% of players living off-campus are below the federal poverty line).
  • True: Athletic scholarships don’t guarantee a debt-free degree (source).
  • True: Most student-athletes do not even have the best health insurance. The insurances come with vague policies that void minor injuries despite NCAA’s yearly $1 billion in revenue. Athletes get to have full benefits only if they are severely injured. The problem is that the majority of injuries are minor.

Takeaway: Many college athletes are in need of financial benefits.

Con 3: The Scholarship Pays for Their Dedication

Many advocates against paying college athletes state that athletic scholarships are sufficient compensation for the athletes. They argue that athletes receive sufficient education-related benefits and that universities should not pay athletes.

  • True: On average, the typical total expense for a four-year program is around $100 thousand per year — typically doubles when taking the program from a prestigious institution. Student-athletes, whether they are star performers or not, won’t have to pay this enormous amount of money. Most scholarships will shoulder their food, boarding, and miscellaneous expenses. To put things into perspective, professionals today are still struggling to pay their student loans. If student-athletes were to be paid instead of a scholarship program, there’s no assurance that they would use the money for their education.
  • False: Athletic scholarships don’t guarantee a debt-free degree (source).

Takeaway: College is expensive. Even though athletes are compensated with scholarships, it is often not sufficient to graduate debt-free from college. A paid student-athlete could be free from financial distress.

Pro 4: It Prevents Switching Schools

Some claim that paying student-athletes will also benefit universities.

  • True: One of the biggest problems in the world of college athletics is student-athlete school switching. Most athletes transfer because one university offers better coaching, training, deals, freedom, and several others. Transferring just because of this reason takes a lot of toll on both students and the university. It takes time to become familiar with the new environment, causing grades to decrease and even athletic performances. 

Takeaway: Paying student-athletes could potentially give them an incentive to stay in their institution, as schools will probably lock them into a contract. 

Con 4: It Is Too Expensive for Universities

Some say that if it becomes a law to pay all student-athletes, thousands of universities will drop their athletic department simply because they can’t afford to pay them.

  • True: Forcing payment will mean cutting the budget for other departments of the university.
  • Probable: Only 357 out of 4,298 degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the U.S. are part of the NCAA Division I. The remaining still have student-athletes, but they are far inferior in terms of performance and do not have the same scholarship benefits. It is probable that mandatory pay would reduce the number of student-athletes outside of Division I and II.

Takeaway: The elite 357 schools are the only ones taking the spotlight. Students from these institutions are given full sponsorship from enormous brands. Mandatory pay would either reduce the budget for other departments of the university or reduce the number of student-athletes.

Pro 5: Collegiate Sports Bodies Will Become More Transparent

NCAA is a non-profit organization. That means all of its income should be spent on collegiate sports organizations. Some argue that paying student-athletes will make way for a more transparent usage of NCAA’s revenue.

Takeaway: Paying student-athletes would reduce NCAA’s spending on expensive facilities. However, it would not allow for a more visible use of the NCAA’s budget. 

Con 5: Stronger Teams Will Get Stronger

Some argue that if bidding becomes a possibility, then the stronger teams will become even stronger.

  • Probable: If student-athletes were to be paid instead of getting a scholarship program, money would be an important factor for them in choosing a university. The university’s reputation, values, and other aspects could be ignored. Giant universities with a high budget will be the only ones capable of acquiring real talent. A bidding war may also affect the university’s priorities. Since attaining the best talent will increase the odds of winning tournaments that would generate funds, they may cut their budget on research and other fundamental departments that define formal education. 

Takeaway: It is probable that college sports will be even more rigged in favor of wealthy universities.

The Bottom Line

Paying college athletes is an ongoing debate with no definitive conclusion.

On one side of the argument, many think that it is appropriate to pay college athletes. People see fit that students get paid for their performance as they are the fundamental piece that drives external revenue to universities.

Without them, sponsors would be scarce, and funding for facilities that would benefit the entire student body would be subpar or non-existent. They insist that college athletes deserve their pay as they are more than just amateur athletes.

On the opposing side, many argue that there are major differences between intercollegiate athletics and professional sports First of all, they should not get paid as very few college players are taking the spotlight.  Furthermore, only two major sports (basketball and football) are making significant amounts of money — some don’t generate any or are purely just expenses. 

College football players should not be treated as professional football teams. Paying college athletes would go against sportsmanship as richer colleges could attract other college students with their bigger budgets. Graduate scholarships would there not be the only remuneration that student-athletes receive.

Currently, the government is working with lawyers, psychologists, philosophers, economists, and many geniuses to one day improve — if not finally decide — which is the right choice: to pay student-athletes or not.

About The Author

Nathan Brunner
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Nathan Brunner is a labor market expert. He is a mathematician who graduated from EPFL.

He is the owner of Salarship, a job board where less-skilled candidates can find accessible employment opportunities.