Why the NCAA can’t, and shouldn’t, pay student athletes

The NCAA should avoid the impossibility of trying to pay their student-athletes. (Courtesy NCAA)
The NCAA should avoid the impossibility of trying to pay their student-athletes. (Courtesy NCAA)

By Sam Killenberg

The flaws and corruption of the NCAA and big athletics have lead many people to question the laws governing college sports. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, an ex-Duke basketball player and former lawyer, has taken the lead in promoting a smaller, more efficient and less confusing NCAA. Among his proposals is to pay athletes as if they were professionals. To Bilas, the logic is simple: players, especially those in high profile sports like football and basketball, bring in massive amounts of money to their school, and if everyone else (coaches, trainers, etc.) gets paid, why shouldn’t athletes, too?

What proponents of this argument are forgetting is that athletes are already getting paidscholarship money. Consider this: The NCAA stipulates that athletes can only train for 20 hours a week for 21 weeks out of the year, with a mandatory day off. For 23 weeks, athletes can work out for only eight hours a day, and eight weeks they get completely off. That comes to 604 hours a year. According to CNN, the average total “price tag” of a year of public, in-state education is $22,261. This is paid for by the school, meaning that the athletes at these institutions get about $36.86 an hour in scholarship money for their efforts. For athletes at private schools like Duke, which runs the average student close to 60 grand a year, the compensation shoots up to $96.49 an hour. Imagine a full-scholarship basketball star like Mason Plumlee trying to convince a student working 30 hours a week at minimum wage so he can leave Duke with less than $10,000 debt that the athletes are getting a raw deal.

Still, that’s not enough for pay-for-play proponents. The next go-to argument is that student-athletes aren’t getting any real bang for their scholarship buck because they are there to play sports, not go to class. If players don’t use the education the scholarship money is buying, aren’t they being exploited? However, the flaw in this reasoning is simple—athletes do go to class, and in fact, they graduate at higher rates than other students. If a student-athlete doesn’t get his or her college degree, it should be the responsibility of the school and of the individual to work toward that goal. The solution shouldn’t be throwing money at players as if college were the minor leagues; it should be ensuring that each athlete gets the education the university provides him or her with. Unfortunately, most people see college as secondary to college sports.

Even if you disregard these facts, trying to pay players becomes a logistical issue. There’s no doubt about it: popular college sports like football and basketball generate big revenues. During the 2011-12 football season, the University of Texas football program turned a profit of almost $80 million, making it the country’s most profitable team. This may sound like an adequate surplus from which to write paychecks to the players, but it’s not. Money from profitable sports is used to fund the college’s non-profitable sports, like track, swimming or gymnastics. On top of that, not all college sports programs have such deep pockets. This brings us to another issue: which athletes from which schools deserve to be paid? Many would argue that only athletes in the most profitable teams should receive a check each month. Even if that were right or feasible, it seems hardly fair to the rest of the athletes who put in the same amount of work. And what about the students? If having no pocket money is unfair for a hard-working athlete, shouldn’t it be unfair for a hard-working physics major? Other students can’t be pushed to the sidelines because college isn’t just about pleasing athletes.

Many people say that the system of college athletics is ruled by the money, and they’re often right. But if you asked any average student-athletes, it’s doubtful that they’d see themselves as exploited workers. Most would be thankful for the opportunity to be in college, getting a free education and playing the sport they love. Paying athletes is an idea that is ill contrived and unfeasible, and it won’t solve the NCAA’s problems. If anything, it would worsen concerns about unfairness, theft and corruption.

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