The notion of paying college football players has been an ongoing debate since the early 1900’s. With current television revenue resulting from NCAA football bowl games and March Madness in basketball, there is now a clamoring for compensating both football and basketball players beyond that of an athletic scholarship. This article takes a point/counterpoint approach to the topic of paying athletes and may have potential implications/consequences for college administrators, athletes, and coaches. Dr. John Acquaviva defends the current system in which colleges provide an athletic scholarship that provides a “free college education” in return for playing on the university team. Dr. Dennis Johnson follows with a counterpoint making the case that athletes in these sports should receive compensation beyond that of a college scholarship and forwards five proposals to pay the athletes.
Key words: pay for play, athletic scholarships
Introduction: History of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)
The idea of paying college athletes to compete dates back to what is considered to be the first intercollegiate competition. In a regatta between Harvard and Yale Universities, Harvard used a coxswain who was not even a student enrolled at the Ivy League school (5). Much like today’s universities whose appetites for appearances in corporate-sponsored “big money” football bowl events; Harvard may have used the non-student to please regatta sponsor Elkins Railroad (23).
In the late 1800’s, football played by college teams was a brutal sport but enjoyed by many fans. However, from 1900 to 1905, there were 45 players who died playing the sport (22). This prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to summon the presidents of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, and threaten them with a ban unless the sport was modified. As a result of that meeting, a group of 62 university presidents convened to form the Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1906. This group evolved into the NCAA in 1910, but as a group it only possessed supervisory power (22).
College football became even more popular in the period of 1920-1940. This was a time when commercialism in the educational system was being questioned on a variety of levels. One such fundamental question was posed in 1929 by Howard Savage, a staff member of the Carnegie Foundation. He raised a question in an article entitled Athletics in American College (originally published in 1930 but reprinted in 1999) “whether an institution in the social order whose primary purpose is the development of the intellectual life can at the same time serve an agency to promote business, industry, journalism, and organized athletics on an extensive commercial basis? More importantly, the report asked “can it (the university) concentrate its attention on securing teams that win, without impairing the sincerity and vigor of its intellectual purpose” (9, p.495)? Savage also states that “alumni devices for recruiting winning teams constitutes the most disgraceful phase of recent intercollegiate athletics” (9, p. 495). In sum, the original 1929 report claimed that “big time” college sports were not educational, but were entirely financial and commercial.
Athletes during the early and mid-1900’s were routinely recruited and paid to play; and there were several instances where individuals representing the schools were not enrolled as students. For example, there is one report of a Midwestern university using seven members of its team that included the town blacksmith, a lawyer, a livery man, and four railroad employees (5). Other athletes at colleges were given high paying jobs for which they did little or no work. In 1948, the NCAA adopted a “Sanity Code” that limited financial aid for athletes to tuition and fees, and required that aid otherwise be given based on need (5). In the early 1950’s, with the threat of several southern schools bolting from the NCAA, the code was revised to allow athletic scholarships to cover tuition, fees, and a living stipend.
However, by the mid-1950’s many schools were still struggling with the issue of offering athletic scholarships. Some university presidents ultimately decided to maintain the principles of amateurism and further serve the mission of higher education. Those were presidents of universities that today make up the Ivy League. They concluded that it was not in the best interest of their universities to award athletic scholarships, and have remained steadfast even today.
After passing Title IX in the mid 1970’s, the NCAA absorbed the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) and began to govern women’s sport at the collegiate level. Over the past 50 years, the NCAA has also expanded into three divisions with a multitude of championship events on a yearly basis (20). There are more than 1,300 member institutions that represent an estimated 400,000 student athletes who participate in sport (21). The result of this growth and development are enormous increases in revenue. NCAA President Mark Emmert reports the NCAA revenues for the 2010-11 fiscal year is projected at $757 million, of which $452.2 million will go to Division I members (14).
While seemingly operating in a purely capitalistic/professional atmosphere, the NCAA continues to endorse an amateurism concept in college athletics. These competing, and often contradictory, values lead some college athletes in big time football and basketball programs to question the status quo of the present system through their words and actions. For example, many athletes are still attempting to get their “piece of the pie,” albeit under the table. And so it leads to our point-counterpoint.
Point: College Athletes Should Not Be Paid
The intensity of the argument to pay college athletes has escalated in the past few years. Perhaps it’s because of the current economic climate and everyone, including amateur athletes is looking for ways to make money? Or maybe it’s because many higher learning institutions have given the public access to their annual budget and readers focus on the profit of select athletic programs? Or maybe it is due to the absurd coaches’ salaries and the money that colleges make from football bowl games and basketball tournaments? Regardless, this has magnified the fact that the athletes see none of these profits and thus begs the simple question: “Where’s my share?” Perhaps a fair question, but to understand this argument better, a healthy debate is needed. So, here are some points to consider.
Point #1: Education is Money
Colleges and universities provide an invaluable and vital service to our communities: education. A now-famous bumper sticker once read: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” To address that very slogan, the U.S. census bureau, as reported by Cheesman-Day and Newberger (7), expressed this best when they reported that the lifetime earnings for those with a college degree are over $1 million dollars more than non-graduates. Despite such a statistic, essays and op-ed columns continue to pour in from those who favor paying student-athletes while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge or accept the value of a college education. Is a college education priceless or not?
A sports-journalist in a recent national radio interview proposed that any argument against paying college athletes based on the sole reason that education is the prize is “antiquated”. But what seems antiquated and even shortsighted is the belief that paying a college athlete some (or even a lot of) money will solve all or even some of student’s long-term issues. The fear of the NCAA, as it should be, is that the mere notion of paying college athletes undermines the university’s primary purpose – education, something far more valuable than a modest annual stipend proposed by many. If it currently appears that the universities “don’t really care” about the athlete, paying them would intensify that belief, not dissolve it.
The irony in this dispute is that student-athletes do cost the university a substantial amount of money each year. For example, a full scholarship over four years can range between $30,000 and $200,000 depending if the institution is public or private (29). But let’s address this main point head on: There is an obvious lack of appreciation of a college degree from those in favor of paying athletes, and until a genuine gratitude for this concept develops, this argument will probably continue to linger.
Point #2: There Are Problems with Payment
Despite the well-documented scandals and corruption in college athletics (30), many would probably agree that paying athletes would exponentially increase the need for intense NCAA oversight – an enormous task by all accounts. Plus, there are the practical issues to consider. For example, how much should the athletes get paid and will payments be based on performance? What if the athlete gets hurt? What if the athlete is a bust and despite remaining on the team, doesn’t start or even play at all? – Issues that seem to raise far more questions than answers. But perhaps most important – What will happen to the non-revenue sports at the colleges who lose money from all of their sports programs – including football and basketball? It has been shown that only a fraction of Division I football and men’s basketball programs turn a profit (24, 20). The other Division I football and basketball programs as well as sports such as baseball, softball, golf, hockey, women’s basketball (minus a couple of notable programs), and just about all Division II sports not only fail to make money, but actually drain their athletic budgets. The outcome here would be inevitable: Forcing athletic departments to pay its football and basketball players would result in the eventual elimination of most, if not all, of the non-revenue sports. Is that what we want?
We cannot afford to be myopic on this issue. That is, there are only a limited number of programs that make big money, but yet there are hundreds of schools who absorb big losses at the cost of providing athletes a place to compete and earn a degree. The purpose of the NCAA, along with Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), Little League, and dozens of other organized forms of amateur sport is to provide a venue to play these sports – something we should not take for granted. The problem is that some have shifted in thinking that playing an organized sport is a right, whereas it still stands as a privilege.
Point #3: The University Offers More Than an Education
Concerts, lecture series by prominent people, on-stage productions, movies, intramural sports, fitness facilities, and a variety of clubs are all part of the typical university experience. Most students agree that colleges are self-contained acres of learning and socializing, all which takes place in a safe environment. It’s common for schools to subsidize the above-mentioned on-campus activities by adding fees to the tuition – which means that it’s free to a full-scholarship athlete. Other benefits to the athlete include the regular use of pristine gyms, well-manicured fields, athlete-only (and often team-only) workout facilities, sports medicine care, the opportunity to travel via away games, specialized meal plans and free foot gear and athletic attire. In addition, athletes are improving their trade from the best coaching minds in the sport; not to mention having access to some of the best nutrition and strength/conditioning personnel. And perhaps the most overlooked benefits are that the school provides the player with high-profile name recognition, a dedicated fan base, media exposure, and a competitive atmosphere with proven rivals, all of which took decades, effort and money for each institution to establish.
Point #4: The Athletic Department Has Its Role
Keep in mind that student-athletes are not employees of the university, rather they are students first and athletes second. The university can indeed make money from the sports programs; however, for those that do, the money simply goes back into the athletic program to fund the non-revenue sports (24). In fact, every year the NCAA sponsors over 80 national championships in three divisions, demonstrating the range and depth of their organization (20). While it is true that the champion in football and men’s basketball (and most other sports for that matter) seem to come from a relatively small pool of universities, it might be safe to assume that paying athletes would create an even bigger disparity since so few universities actually make money. Let’s face it, we are an underdog-loving country, and paying athletes would all but ensure that teams like Butler University, who made it to the Final Four in consecutive tournaments (2010 and 2011), will never do it again.
Point #5: Athletes Know the Deal
From the moment the full-scholarship papers are signed, each participant’s role is very clear: Schools accept the responsibility of the student’s tuition, meal plan, and boarding, while the athlete is provided with the opportunity to earn a degree, engage in college life and play their favorite sport in a well-organized, and often high profile fashion. The document signed by each student-athlete describes this agreement in an unmistakable manner. Although wordy and at times complex – a necessity due to the nature of the agreement – there’s no vagueness in the general arrangement or a hidden agenda from either party (10). A failure to honor the basic premise of any such contract would cause all forms of business – big or small – to crumble. If for some reason the university could be held liable for entrapment or some other form of dishonesty, then their athlete’s argument would stand on firmer ground. But frankly, the details of this agreement are well known by all involved, and rather strangely, no one seems to mind when signing them.
In conclusion, it should be noted that any NCAA improprieties or blatant corruption may have a carry-over effect into empathizing with the position given here. While corruption and other related-concerns are legitimate and need investigation, paying college athletes still remains a separate debate. It is vital to this process to view each NCAA issue independently and avoid making judgments on them as a whole. The position here is that, like many organizations, the NCAA should not be dismissed or discredited on one issue due to the mishandling of others. Further, if the contention is that many student athletes enter college unprepared or that athletics takes up too much time to excel (or even earn a degree), those are separate, but much needed arguments, and are not related to the issue of paying athletes.
Now more than ever, we live in an era of entitlement. At one time our country viewed the chance at higher education as a priceless commodity. However, it now seems that a college education is not held in the same esteem and worse yet, some see it as simply an opportunity to earn money. Although it is now evident that there has been a failure to convince much of the public of the true value of an education, keeping college athletes as pure amateurs remains the right thing to do.
Counter Point: Athletes in “Big-Time” Sports Should Be Paid
The argument that a college athletic scholarship is an equal quid pro quo for a college education has been utilized since athletic scholarships were approved by the NCAA in 1950’s. My colleague makes one point that is totally accurate – a college graduate can in fact make a great deal more money over a lifetime when compared to non-graduates. However, the remainder of the author’s points are half-truths and in reality just plain falsehoods. For instance, a “full athletic scholarships” do not provide a “free” education (as it does not cover all costs incurred from matriculation to graduation. In many cases, the university does not live up to its end of the bargain of providing an education; as evidenced by the dismal number in the graduation rates, especially among African Americans. Furthermore, the athletic scholarship is only a one-year (renewable) agreement that can be terminated by the coach or university in any given year for any reason.
In debating the pay-for-play issue in college athletics, the history of the governing body (i.e., currently the NCAA), their mission and view of amateurism, the past history of college athletes benefitting financially, and the degree to which athletes benefit from the university experience must all be examined. The counter point section of this paper addresses each point made by my colleague. Using the Eitzen (12) analogy comparing the NCAA and big-time athletic programs to the old southern plantation system will be the underpinning wellspring for the subject of athlete exploitation and the financial benefits enjoyed by the university derived from that plantation-like exploitation. An economic viewpoint will be presented to demonstrate the cartel-like atmosphere held by the NCAA while maintaining the illusion of amateurism.
Finally, five proposals that outline means to promote pay-for-play in NCAA Division I football and men’s basketball will be presented. The arguments that follow are specifically tailored for those two sports at schools who receive bonus money from the NCAA, as those universities and their coaches enjoy considerable revenue from TV contracts and sponsorships generated by bowl games and “March Madness” appearances.
Point #1: Athletic Scholarships Provide a “Free Education” is not correct
As mentioned, in the 1950’s the NCAA approved adding living stipends to athletic scholarships that previously included only tuition and fees. Today, the “full ride” scholarship can only include tuition, fees, room, board, and books. And as mentioned in the previous section, in some cases, depending on the school attended, that scholarship can be worth anywhere from $30,000 to $200,000, although the figures $20,000 to $100,000 over a four year period might be more accurate. In any case, that still does not cover the full cost of attending college.
The Collegiate Athletes Coalition (CAC) estimates that NCAA scholarships are worth about $2000 less than the cost of attending a university, as it does not account for expenses such as travel and sundries. Former Nebraska head football coach and United States Congressman, Tom Osborne (R-NE), calculates the gap between scholarship funding and the actual cost of attendance to be closer to $3,000. Even former NCAA President, Myles Brand, indicated that he favored increasing scholarship limits: “Ideally, the value of an athletically related scholarship would be increased to cover the full-cost of attendance, calculated at between $2,000 to $3000 more per year than is currently provided, I favor this approach of providing the full cost of attendance” (23, p.232).
So yes, the scholarship can be seen as pay for play, or at the very least, a quid pro quo for services rendered during a four year period. However, even with a full scholarship, an athlete will have to pay somewhere between $8,000 and $12,000 out of pocket to bridge the cost-of-living gap. Therefore, the full athletic scholarship does not provide a “free” education. Thus question remains: is the full scholarship a fair and equitable deal for the athlete?
Athlete Exploitation-The Plantation System
Eitzen (12) among others (27) makes the analogy that the NCAA operates like the “plantation system” of the old south. The coaches are the overseers who get work from the laborers (players) who provide riches for the masters (universities) while receiving little for their efforts. Perhaps slightly over-stated (obviously the athlete is not a slave, but maybe an indentured servant), the student–athlete is dominated, managed, and controlled, and they don’t receive a wage commensurate to their contribution as expressed in dollars earned by the university. Eitzen notes that athletes are sometimes mistreated physically and mentally and are often denied the rights and freedoms of other citizens. Ultimately, they have no real democratic recourse in an unjust system.
There are other similarities to the plantation analogy. Slaves were not free to leave the plantation much like an athlete cannot get out of a letter of intent (without penalty) and/or transfer without the penalty of sitting out a year. Much like the slaves who had no right to privacy, athletes are subject to mandatory drug testing (even though their coaches/masters are not tested), room checks, and limits on where they can and cannot go in the community. The athletes can be prohibited from political protests and the right to assemble. And finally, they can be subjected to mental cruelty and physical abuse (e.g., early morning torture sessions), all in order to create obedient slaves; student athletes.
Furthermore, collegiate athletics is often the only game in town for many of these athletes. For instance, football players must be in their third year of college or over the age of 21 to enter the National Football League (NFL). Basketball players, on the other hand, must attend college for one year or ultimately sit out a year before they can enter the National Basketball Association (NBA). Thus, the college game has become a “feeder system” similar to a minor professional league and it is in reality, “the only game in town.”
Point #2: Athletes Don’t Know the “Real” Deal
My colleague is partially correct in that most student athletes know that they are getting a scholarship that will allow them to go to school and play a sport. However, many don’t know the “real deal” as they generally have very little understanding they are about to enter a “plantation-like” system in which their scholarship in not guaranteed (i.e., renewable yearly) and can be terminated at any time. Student-athletes are also a led to believe that they will play and receive a college degree while possibly picking up a few fringe benefits along the way.
Take, for example, the recent stories regarding players like Reggie Bush, Cam Newton, or the players at Ohio State who received money and/or other benefits as a result of playing football. Even though student athletes know they will not get directly paid for playing, many desire and even expect some form of compensation. Slack (25) surveyed 3,500 current and retired football players in 1989 only to find that 31% had received under the table money during their college careers and 48% knew of others who had received payments. This seems to imply that while many recruits may indeed know “the deal”, they display their discontent by accepting payments or other benefits not currently allowed by the NCAA.
In reality, the statement “athletes know the deal” with regard to academic achievement and degree completion seems to lack substance. Dr. Nathan Tublitz, co-chair of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletes, an organization of 51 faculty senates whose purpose is to remind college presidents, athletic directors, and coaches that student athletes are students first. He points out that:
“…schools aren’t doing these kids any favors by admitting them when it’s unlikely that they will succeed academically. We bring 17 year-old kids, some of them from the inner city and we wine and dine them. They have female chaperones. We put them up in fancy hotels. They come here and see an incredibly fancy locker room with individual TV screens, air conditioning and videogames. They go in and see the new football stadium and the new $200 million basketball arena. They see a medical training facility that is stunningly beautiful with waterfalls, treadmill pools, and the sate-of-the-art medical and dental equipment. They come here and are treated like royalty. Until they break a leg or get put on the second string and they get set aside. Many don’t earn a degree. They don’t have the training or the skills to be independent after they leave the university. They’re lost (28, p.D10).”
When the scholarship is signed, the athlete and his family have reasonable expectations which include efforts by the coaching staff and university administration to meet all obligations of the contract. Additionally, my colleague notes, “that failure to honor the basic premise of any such contract would cause all forms of business – big or small – to crumble.” If the NCAA and athletic departments in higher education are a business, why are they allowed to act in a cartel-like fashion? And finally, do student athletes really know the “deal” when they penned their name on national signing day? It appears they don’t.
Point #3: The University Offers More than Education-It’s Possible-But Not Probable
Academic Detachment. My colleague also makes the claim that the university offers more than an education (e.g., concerts, lectures, intramurals, and clubs) in settings that enrich the college experience. Due to the plantation effect, however, many athletes are not able to take advantage of those events. For instance, few if any of the scholarship athletes would be allowed to play in an intramural contest for the coach’s fear of injury. Student athletes are also over-scheduled with study halls, practices, weight training sessions, film study, individual workouts, more practice, travel, and competition; all in an attempt to help athletes maintain focus on their sport.
Adler and Adler (1) spent five years recording systematic information regarding the athletes’ lives in a big-time college basketball program. After observing, interviewing, and traveling with them, they concluded that big-time basketball and being seriously engaged in academics were not compatible. They also found that freshmen had a period of optimism regarding academics when they first arrived on campus, but after about two semesters they found that the social isolation combined with the fatigue of training kept them from becoming involved in academic life.
Positive feedback these basketball players earned was always athletic-related and not academic. They soon learned what they had to do to stay eligible. Coaches made sure they scheduled classes that did not interfere with practices. Ultimately, the researchers realized that academic detachment was encouraged by the peer culture, and because of their social status (e.g., big man on campus), it became difficult for them to focus on academics.
Coakley (8) reported that not all of the athletes in the Adler & Adler (1) study experienced academic detachment. Those who entered college well-prepared with appropriate high school courses, strong parental support and an ability to develop relationships outside of sport were able to succeed in the classroom. It’s important to note that too many minority athletes from low socioeconomic environments struggle in academics – an issue that is often perpetuated by the coaches. For instance, Robert Smith, former running back for Minnesota Vikings and pre-med student while at Ohio State, needed two afternoon labs in the same semester. Since the labs conflicted with practice, coaches suggested that he drop them because of the commitment he made to play football. Against the wishes of the coaching staff, Smith took the classes but was forced to sit out the season as red shirt athlete; a further example of the plantation effect.
Benson (3) noted that one perspective was missing from the literature included a full expression from the black athletes point of view. Benson conducted a qualitative interview study of 12 African American students at a DI football program where the graduation rate was 31-40% for black football players compared to 60-70% of white football players. The results in this instance cannot be generalized due to the small sample size (N=12), but it does provide a snapshot of the thoughts regarding education and athletics of this group. Further, they reflect the results obtained by Adler & Adler (1).
Another major finding of the Benson (3) study was that the marginal academic performance was created by a series of interrelated practices engaged in by all significant members of the academic setting, including peers, coaches, advisors, teachers, and the student athletes themselves. It began in the recruitment, and continued through the first year. Black student athletes received the message that school was not important, and that as time passed, they had no real control over their destiny in the classroom. It was simply a matter of survival to keep the grade point average (GPA) to a point to be eligible. They all felt like the coaches did not “walk the talk” in terms of academics. They would just talk the academic game in public but then in reality they would have “fits” if classes ever interfered with the program. Simply put, student athletes learned it was a matter of survival and a basic expectation to maintain a GPA just high enough to remain eligible to compete (3).
“The Black Dumb Jock”. Harry Edwards (13) discussed the creation of the “black dumb jock” image prior to studies completed by Alder and Alder (1), Benson (3), and Coakley (8). He (i.e., Edwards) theorized that they were not born, but rather systematically created. The previous mentioned studies serve as evidence to support his statement (1, 3, 8). The exploitation of athletes is not solely an NCAA issue but a societal one. For example, Fred Butler was passed on through elementary, middle, and high school because he was a good football player. He graduated from high school reading at a second grade level and went to El Camino Junior College. There he took a number of physical activity classes while hoping to be drafted into the NFL. When no offer came, he played at California State University-Los Angeles for a year and a half. When again no offer came and his eligibility expired, he failed out of school within months with no degree, no offers to play pro ball, and no skills to use for employment. And he still could not read! (18). Similarly, Former NFL player Dexter Manley testified before a Senate Committee that he played four years at Oklahoma State University, only to leave the school illiterate. And the sad feature is that academic detachment from the university athletic department perspective doesn’t seem to be an issue because there are always more impoverished (and usually minority) kids waiting to come in and play.
Thus, student athletes in many cases cannot take advantage of the many extras offered by a college education. Why do athletes accept a diluted academic experience or the corruption of doctored transcripts, phantom courses, surrogate test takers, and tutors writing papers? Perhaps it is because they are disenfranchised under the current system, and will lose scholarships, starting roles, and eligibility if they complain. George Will argued that “College football and basketball are, for many players, vocations, not avocations, and academics are unsubstantiated rumors” (12, p.5). So do full scholarship athletes get a chance to take advantage of all the extras of the university experience? More than likely it is not the case especially when they can’t even hope for a meaningful degree.
NCAA as a Cartel. Kahn (16) examined the operation of the college football and basketball systems of the NCAA and offers lessons about the determinants and effects of supply and demand. Specifically he utilizes economic principles to calculate the value of college football player to a university. He notes that total ticket revenues for football and men’s basketball were $757 million in 1999, total value that exceeded the total ticket sales for all of professional baseball, football, and hockey that year. A figure indicating that the NCAA is a very successful business entity engaged in capitalism.
According to the cartel theory, the NCAA has “enforced collusive restrictions on payments for factors of production, including player compensation, recruiting expenses, and assistant coaches salaries; it has restricted output; and it has defeated potential rival groups (16, p. 211).” He notes, along with others (11, 15, 16, 30), that the NCAA can impose sanctions that range from scholarship reductions, elimination from post-season play to program death penalties (e.g., Southern Methodist football); and possibly even threaten a school’s academic accreditation. However, restriction of pay to players is the main way in which the organization acts to restrict competition.
Economists who have studied the NCAA “view it as a cartel that attempts to produce rents, both by limiting payments for inputs such as player compensation and by limiting output” (16, p.210). When looking at the rent values based on college football or men’s basketball players’ performances, they are paid below a competitive level of compensation based on estimates of marginal revenue product produced of these players (6). Their analysis considered the total revenue for a school and the number of players that were eventually drafted by a major professional league. Utilizing this framework they concluded that in 2005 dollars a draft-ready football player returned $495,000 to the university, while a draft-ready basketball player was worth $1.422 million for men’s basketball. And all of this compared to the approximately $40,000 paid in scholarship worth. This indicates that the NCAA does indeed use cartel power to pay top athletes less than the athlete’s market value.
Based on a workload of 1000 hours per year and an average scholarship value, economist Richard Sheehan (16) calculated the basic hourly wage of a college basketball player at $6.82 and a football player at $7.69. Coaches’ hourly wages, on the other hand, ranged from $250-$647 per hour (depending on salary). Again, using the Eitzen metaphor, the masters accumulate wealth at the slave’s expense, even though the athlete/slave’s health is jeopardized by participation (12).
Parent (23) notes the hypocrisy of the amateurism construct when looking at these capitalism issues. He notes that the former president of the University of Washington, William Gerberding, said, “As one contemplates the obvious fact that so many of the most gifted athletes are economically and educationally disadvantaged blacks, this becomes less and less defensible. I have become increasingly uncomfortable about having a largely white establishment maintaining an elaborate system of rules that deprives student-athletes, many of whom are non-white, of adequate financial support in the name of the ideals of amateurism” (p.236).
So, why do athletes tolerate this system? They do mainly because they are disenfranchised and fear losing their scholarships and eligibility if they complain. In essence, this pay-for-play discussion revolves around amateurism, as advertised by the NCAA, and its competing capitalistic drive for income. According to Tulsa Law School professor Ray Yasser, the best option for athletes to change the system for their benefit is to unite and “file an antitrust suit…against the NCAA and their universities, with the claim being that the NCAA and their universities are colluding to create a monopoly over the athlete’s ability to share in the profits generated from college athletics” (23, p.236).
While the points for maintaining the status quo were stated previously, there has been sufficient evidence presented in this section to stimulate discussion of paying players. The “play for a diploma” agreement is not happening in many cases, as the athlete failure rate indicates. Another example is national champion Connecticut men’s basketball program losing two scholarships for the upcoming season as a result of a poor Academic Performance Rating (APR) from the NCAA (11). Thus, the following pay for play proposals are being submitted for consideration.
It would appear that NCAA should get out of the commercial business of football and basketball and follow the Ivy League example of providing an environment that is truly amateur where student athletes actually are students first. That move would certainly place the student first in the student athlete term. However, it doesn’t seem pragmatic that either the NCAA or any of the major universities are in any hurry to turn away millions of dollars per year in profits. Therefore, it is time to consider some pay-for-pay proposals. California and Nebraska have already passed state legislation that would enable colleges to compensate athletes; however they are blocked by the NCAA from doing so (23). Therefore, I submit five proposals that could possibly be implemented:
- Big Ten Plan and/or Work Study Proposal: At the very least, the NCAA should follow former NCAA President Miles Brand’s suggestion and allocate athletes include a $2,000-$3,000 cost of living increase to full scholarships. Since athletes are supposedly only allowed to spend 20 hours per week involved with sport-related activities, this might actually be paid as 20 hours of work study or as a monthly living stipend. This would provide the athletes with the needed income for clothes, laundry, sundries, travel, and other small item expenses.
Officials from the Big Ten are currently discussing a similar proposal that would help their athletes meet expenses not covered in an athletic scholarship. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany reports league athletic directors and university officials have seriously discussed using some of their growing TV revenue to pay athletes more. This proposal which would give athletes a $2,000-$5,000 per year living stipend also has the support of current NCAA president Mark Emmert (2).
- SEC Game Pay Proposal: The Southeastern Conference, another of the big time football conferences recently entered into the pay for play discussion. University of South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier put forth a proposal at the recent conference meetings to pay players $300 per game. The proposal was supported by several other coaches.
This type of a proposal could pay athletes anywhere from $300-$1000 per game based on time played per game. Since most players do not play more than 30 minutes a game, a player could be paid on a per-minute of competition basis. At a rate of $20 per minute a player could net $600 for a game and approximately $6000-$7,000 per season.
- Professional League Proposal: Ron Woods (27) puts forth a proposal submitted by Peter Plagensa, visiting professor at Middlebury College, regarding the pay-for-play issue. He appears to agree with the likes of Stanley Eitzen that the current practice of colleges and the NCAA do in fact “amount to a little more than a plantation system” (27, p. 67). He suggests that the big time college football and basketball maintain the million-dollar industry by making them an age 23 and under professional league. This proposal would allow universities to hire players as college staff (much like the cafeteria or groundskeepers) at moderate salaries plus room and board. Universities could also grant the athletes free academic classes until they earn a degree (even after playing days are over).
- Revenue Sharing Proposal from TV/NCAA Proceeds:
“College basketball players watch the coach roaming the sidelines in his $1,500 custom-make suit. They read about his $500.000 salary and $250,000 perk from a sneaker deal. They watch the schools sell jerseys (and T-shirts) with the player’s numbers on them. They see the athletic director and NCAA officials getting rich and you wonder why they might ask; hey where’s my share? What am I, a pack mule” (17, p.46)
Tim Tebow related on the Daily Show (26) that he joked with his college coach prior to a national championship game about getting a cut of his bonus money to ensure a victory. This brings another revenue sharing possibility to the surface: coaches sharing their bonuses and other performance incentives with the players.
Most coaches in big time programs are paid huge bonuses based on team record and ranking, all a result of player performance. For instance, according to 2009 IRS income tax reports, Mike Krzyewski received $2,222,543 in bonuses and incentives (4). Coaches under this proposal would be required to share 25-50% of their bonuses with the players. Isn’t it reasonable to expect the athletes to get a cut of the bonus money? After all, they (i.e., the players) are the ones who put the coaches in a position to earn those bonuses.
My colleague has argued in point #2 that paying athletes raise a myriad of other issues, such as how much should they receive, what happens if an athlete gets hurt, and so on. That is a discussion for another time. First, we must agree that it is fair to compensate NCAA Division I football and basketball athletes beyond that of an athletic scholarship; then and only then may payout details be chronicled. Note: a reminder that we are only discussing compensation for the NCAA Division I-A football and basketball players; not the athletes in the AAU, Little League or other truly amateur venues of organized sport.
Throughout the history of the NCAA, college athletes have routinely received compensation beyond that of a full college scholarship (e.g., room and board, tuition, books). While such compensation is illegal, athletes like Reggie Bush and others receive under-the-table benefits as evidenced in the Slack survey (25).
Additionally, many athletes in “big time” programs do not receive a degree for their efforts in the athletic arena. Universities routinely admit students based on their athletic skills that are academically ill-prepared for success. As seen in the research (1, 3), many athletes that aspire to be academically successful soon lose hope with the over-scheduling and pressures of sport preparation. As a result, many college athletes, a majority of which are minorities, fail out of school once coaches have utilized their eligibility.
The NCAA functions like a cartel, keeping cost down while increasing profits. Rents for a draft-ready athlete earn the university somewhere between $500,000 for football and $1.422 million for men’s basketball (16), leading to a pseudo-plantation system where the coaches oversee the athletes demanding work and controlling their schedules on and off the field. This unbalanced system allows athletes to earn the equivalent of $6.80-$7.69 an hour (12) while coaches like Nick Saban of Alabama or Mack Brown of Texas earn over five million dollars a year (4).
If the NCAA continues as a corporate entity and acting in a cartel-like fashion making millions of dollars a year, implementing a plan to pay student athletes for playing must be considered. Otherwise, America’s institutions of higher learning should follow the Ivy League schools’ example and eliminate athletic scholarships, get out of the big time sport business, and get on with providing students with a complete educational experience.
Applications in Sport
Few discussions within sport are more common or controversial than the debate to pay college athletes. Some arguments are well thought and articulated, while others lack insight and are simply driven by passion. The purpose of this article is to provide the reader with a new perspective and some historical insight – all supported by the literature – regardless of their stance on this issue. Moreover, readers who may actually be heard by the NCAA may offer a position that has yet to be considered. The concession here is that despite any decision by the NCAA in the near future, we can be assured that college administrators, coaches, and athletes will continue this debate. However, their arguments may now be seen as relevant and more reasoned.
POSTSCRIPT: According to Michelle B. Hosick at the NCAA.org, the NCAA board of directors has moved on two issues discussed in this article since its submission. In April (2012), the board moved to implement a $2,000 allowance to an athlete’s full scholarship. They also voted to grant multi-year scholarships. However, both measures have been put on hold with the threat of an override vote by member institutions. On January 14, 2012 at the NCAA convention the board delayed implementation of the $2,000 supplement and sent it back to committee for revision at its April meeting. The multi-year scholarship issue will continue to be implemented on a conference-by-conference basis. And so the pay-for-play discussion continues.
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