College Athletes and Compensation

Just this month, lawmakers in California proposed a bill that would enable NCAA student athletes to earn money off of their names and likenesses. Throughout this process, students will be able to maintain their NCAA eligibility, which is currently considered by the NCAA as an offense. The bill also forbids the NCAA to enact any penalty surrounding these student athletes’ “salaries.” 

In reprisal, the NCAA postulates that the proposal is unconstitutional, as states lack the jurisdiction to grant student athletes these rights. Furthermore, the organization has sent a letter to the state, where they stated that should the bill ends up being enforced as a law, all 58 NCAA schools in California will be dismissed from the NCAA altogether.

Issues notwithstanding, South Carolina lawmakers have begun discussing about the possibility of drafting a similar bill. This ongoing debate has contributed aplenty to the already fraught interdependence of college sports and billion-dollar professional leagues. “Should college athletes be paid or not?”  While erstwhile contentious question, it has recently been fortified by more pragmatic perspectives that have surfaced of late, and people are coming forward in the support of paying student athletes, even superstar athletes themselves, who also were once student athletes. The question primarily concerns student athletes of the four major North American sports (baseball, hockey, American football, and basketball) as they, along with their professional leagues (MLB, NHL, NFL, and NBA) bring in most of the money through game viewings on national television, advertisements, and brand sponsorships. 

Such is the case with rookie Zion Williamson. Touted as the second coming of NBA megastar LeBron James in game, and virtually, in physique. Even as a freshman basketball player at Duke University, he amassed hordes of fans around the world with his versatile play and the once-a-generation combination of size, strength, and mobility. Unfortunately, last February 20, Williamson injured his right knee less than a minute into a nationally televised game – the game is now famous due to the explosion of his Nike sneakers. Unfortunately, as NCAA rules stand, his injuries, irrespective of severity, are not compensated for. And should he continue with the season and risk more injuries, the chances of getting into NBA, while all but guaranteed, could suffer and his draft stock could diminish. Many urged Williamson to forgo the three remaining years of his college eligibility and head straight to the NBA, which he did – he was taken first overall by the New Orleans Pelicans in the 2019 NBA Draft. In retrospect, it is quite fortunate that his injury was minor, as a devastating one would have depleted not only his pro chances and draft stock, but his potential earning power. Not every athlete is given this chance, however, so what about those college athletes risking injuries season after season just to build their draft stock?

Well, should college athletes be paid? Central to the discourse are both ends of the spectrum: the most dominant, if not popular views.

Should college athletes be paid?
 

Reasons Why College Athletes Should Be Paid

Many argue that being a college student athlete is considered as a full-time job. You bounce between the weight room, classes, the court or field, and your personal life. While college athletics are considered as extracurricular activities, the timetables in which the National Collegiate Athletic Association operates in demand for a prolonged period in which college athletes would miss school.  According to Marc Edelman, these student athletes not only miss class, they become absent for nationally televised games that make profit through millions of viewers, all the while receiving no compensation. 

  • They are walking advertisements

It is no secret that college athletes bring in revenue for their team and respective school, especially during championship games (think March Madness). Those who argue in favor of compensation assert that the students could receive a small portion of the profits. Their pay would vary, of course, just as how universities with more successful teams receive more money and television time over those that do not.

It is also vital to consider that college athletes are not only part of a sports team, in some cases they are the face of the university’s athletic team. To a great extent, they also become the university’s advertising team.  One strong case that shows this is the “Flutie effect”, which is a term coined that describes a surge in college admissions following a huge sports win. Named after Doug Flutie, a Boston College quarterback, his Heisman Trophy in 1984 contributed to the exponential rise of admissions. However, the extent of Flutie’s impact has since been refuted by the BC administration. Still, however, it is apparent that colleges and universities use their athletic victories in promotions and advertisements. Picture this: when a relatively obscure school is on the national stage (think NCAA finals), there is no denying the exposure that it gets, and the school name gets indelibly registered in the consciousness of high school seniors still undecided on which school to pick. 

Digressing aside, although student athletes receive scholarship and money for housing, experts argue it does not equate much compared to the almost obscene profit they generate for their schools and the NCAA in general.

  • The difficulty of implementation is no excuse

From the opposition, the difficulty of the implementation of the compensation is of paramount consideration. Such complexities come in the form of several questions, such as: Who will pay the college athletes (the NCAA or colleges)? How often will they receive pay? Will there be a salary cap? The main question, however, is pointed to which college athletes will be paid and those who will not. Since the debate began over the broadcast of NCAA’s income, the answer is simple. The athletes receiving pay will be the ones in sports that haul the most money, specifically basketball and football. Other teams will not be receiving any, such as swimming, lacrosse, and soccer, to name a few. College basketball and football players have fans willing to pay to watch the games. Other sports cannot boast of such large fan bases; unfortunately, this is capitalism at work, a system that dominates America

  • Athletes risk their bodies, making them susceptible to permanent injuries

One of the best parts of college sports, and why people engage so much with it, is the players’ enthusiasm. The love and passion for the sport becomes apparent every game, which is both admirable and infectious. There is a downside to this, however. In their drive to play their best each game, college athletes are susceptible to injuries, which can lead to prematurely ending their careers permanently.

What is appalling is that an injury-ending career will put a stop to their scholarships. Even more egregious, these college athletes risk their bodies without any compensation. A knee injury might rob you of your athleticism, while concussions can cause depression and CTE. To play the game, they put their bodies on the line, and the health risks they take should be rightfully compensated. 

  • There is big money already tangled in college sports

Many argue that paying student athletes can weaken the spirit of the collegiate game, thereby ruining the magic. According to those against paying college athletes, the passion evident on the court or field is genuine, as there is no money involved. Unfortunately, this is not always true. What people do not realize is that big companies actually profit off of branding these college athletes, for instance asking them to wear specific brand apparel during their games. This is done without any payment, and many student players feel used. 

Reasons Why College Athletes Should Not Be Paid

Although these college athletes are playing at an almost elite level, those against their compensation argue that they still are not playing professionally. It is not their job to play sports; as college athletics are merely extracurricular activities pursued as they finish higher education. College athletes are essentially students first, and their main function should be dedicated to learning - in writing research papers, learning theories, and even more important, real life applications. Many are lucky enough to pursue education at a reduced cost, considering that most are granted athletic scholarships. If any of these athletes were paid, motivations will shift. They are, to reiterate, college students first, merely given the chance to play a sport while pursuing their dreams. 

  • There exists a margin in terms of money

Should the time come for salaries to replace sports scholarships, those against compensation point out that these college athletes will not be earning more. Even a remarkable $100,000 yearly salary for a college athlete will only grant him a few hundred dollars more than a scholarship. According to Money.com, a full athletic scholarship at an NCAA university is $65,000 a year. This amount already includes the school tuition fee, room, books, and board. A salary, on the other hand, will be subjected to income taxes, both state and federal. Out of the $100,000, only a net of $65,100 remains for the student. Considering that the college athlete will be paying for tuition fees and other school expenses, as the scholarship will cease to exist, none of the $65,000 will remain. 

  • Earning that much money too soon can be harmful

Those in favor of the compensation debate that this will help create a sense of financial awareness for these students. A documentary by ESPN called “Broke” posits the rather ugly contrary, showing that the reasons why athletes go broke after retiring is poor financial decisions and preposterously lavish spending habits. Without sound financial education, young college athletes may not be able to manage such sum of money. 

Salaries also pose another problem: if salaries were involved, athletes will prioritize to commit to a university with the highest offer. This also gives them the opportunity to transfer from one school to the other, depending on who offers the highest amount.  This can effectively turn college athletics into 100% business deals, no different from the NBA and the NFL. This system could also cause the downfall of college programs, as budget cuts can happen in order to give way for their college athletes’ salaries.

  • Paying college student athletes huge sums of money defeats the purpose of college

One can argue that college education is significant, as it is the ultimate preparation for real life. The experiences and knowledge it bestows on each student provide them the tools and abilities to succeed beyond college. In this manner, college athletes are no different than other college students who practice internships at law firms, hospitals, and other agencies for little to no money. With this in mind, why should college athletes be treated any differently? Upon assessing the youth today, it is safe to muse that many exhibit impatience and lack the ability to delay gratification. Going through college can teach them a life truth: in the real world, working hard is expected and patience is essential. Paying college athletes a hefty sum will not be preparing them for the real world; feeding their folly will only pervert their perspective. 

  • Compensation can foster false hopes

When student athletes get their way, the nature of college athletics will suffer. Reality check: becoming a college athlete is a rare opportunity.  Earning a position in a college sports team is difficult, and although a dream of many, only 7% high school athletes move on to the next level. Implementing a salary scheme for college students will only crush others more, especially since only the best of the best are recognized. 

Conclusion

The decision of paying college athletes will produce a number of factors, both pros and cons that need to be analyzed carefully. Based from the arguments presented above, most people would agree that athletes should be compensated, given that profit is generated from their general likenesses and activities. However, many also agree that universities should rightfully emphasize academics over athletics. Given all the factors that come into play, finding a balance is the only way for progress to be obtained. 

And while support for paying college athletes has developed in the previous years, the NCAA has shown little penchant to shift their views on the issue, even with a bill at hand.  For now, college sports will remain to be a billion dollar industry. 

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