Should College Athletes Be Paid?

By Shmuel Segal, Co-Founder and CEO of MediaTroopers

Featuring cross-country matchups, packed stadiums, and passionate fan bases, collegiate sports can often feel a lot like the major leagues. However, the major leagues and collegiate conferences are different in one fundamental way: in college sports, athletes are strictly amateur. 

Athletes put in full-time hours, bring revenue and recruiting power to universities, and perform on the highest level in nationally televised contests but don’t receive any financial reward for competing. 

History of college sports

Since the formation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in 1906, strict rules have been enforced that prevent any college athlete from receiving financial compensation for playing. 

This was because when intercollegiate football first became popular in the late 19th century, many colleges recruited professional players, giving the game a reputation for violence that required presidential intervention. 

After 1906, new rules, such as the forward pass, were combined with a commitment to strict amateurism to combat this. Guidelines preventing college athletes from receiving payment to “advertise, recommend, or promote” products and services further restricted players, many from poor backgrounds, from profiting from their fame. 

National Collegiate Athletic Association vs. Alston 

However, a landmark decision by the Supreme Court in June 2021 in National Collegiate Athletic Association vs. Alston et al. could forever change how college athletes benefit from the national spotlight. 

The ruling gave college athletes the right to profit from their name, image, and likeness (NIL) without affecting their ability to compete in NCAA-sanctioned competitions. 

Student-athletes can now sign endorsements, profit from social media, and receive compensation for personal appearances. Boosters can now sign agreements with players if they adhere to school laws and policies. 

Within weeks of the change, college athletes like Alabama quarterback Bryce Young signed nearly $1 million in endorsement deals. Over forty states have passed laws allowing student-athletes to receive NIL payments. 

This ruling, combined with the ongoing college conference realignment that will see college athletes from schools such as UCLA and USC travel considerable distances to the East Coast in the regular season, has prompted a renewal of the debate over whether college athletes should be paid. 

Pay for play

Advocates for professionalism in college sports have a simple and effective argument: schools and athletic conferences make too much money not to pay athletes. 

Broadcast rights alone generate vast sums of cash. The College Football Playoff receives $470 million annually from ESPN and will surely increase when its bracket expands to 12 teams. Likewise, the Big Ten Conference’s new football television deal with Fox, NBC, and CBS is worth nearly $1 billion annually and will see its 16 schools make almost $100 million each. 

But this is not unique to College Football: CBS and Turner Sports signed an eight-year extension worth $8 billion for the rights to March Madness in 2016. 

While schools are counting on this broadcast cash, student-athletes often need help financially. Unlike many students, they have no time for a part-time job to support their studies. 

While college sports used to be a regional affair, with traveling distances limited to regions like the Pacific Coast or Sun Belt, increasingly conferences are expanding to include larger geographic areas. All this means that competing for your school can feel like a full-time job. 

The Flutie Effect

Recruiting great athletes often has knock-on effects for the entire college, boosting applications and income. There’s even a name for this phenomenon: the Flutie Effect

In 1984, Boston College QB Doug Flutie threw a “Hail Mary” pass for a game-winning TD against Miami on national television. Within two years, applications had jumped by 30%, bringing revenue into the school. Flutie’s heroics made the school money, and those who favor professionalism say he should have got his share. 

Are college coaches overpaid?

Finally, the most convincing argument made by those who say college athletes should be paid concerns the fact that not everyone in a college athletics department is amateur. 

Head coaches and directors often make large sums for their services. For instance, Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban is paid nearly $11 million a year. If Saban can be paid for his craft, why can’t the players that win him titles?  

Scholarships, not salaries

Conversely, schools argue that the benefits of free education through scholarships make up for the lack of financial payment for playing. The NCAA estimates that nearly $3.6 billion of athletic scholarships are awarded annually, giving over 180,000 students a chance to attend the most prestigious colleges in the world. 

Access to some of the world’s best facilities positively benefits student-athletes and provides them with an education. A Gallup survey stated that 70% of NCAA athletes graduate in four years or fewer, 5% higher than non-athletes. 

These scholarships cost, as does running a college athletics program. Outside a handful of Division I programs, most athletic departments run at a net loss due to equipment, coaches, and facilities costs. A research scholar from Wayne State University found that only 18 out of 211 Division I schools made a profit in 2020. 

Professionalism in college sports

Making college sports professional would likely dramatically increase these costs and likely result in one of two outcomes: colleges outside of the elite closing their athletics programs or the elite of college athletics further concentrating their advantage over smaller schools. Upsets and bracket-busters could be a thing of the past if professionalism creeps in for the most prominent schools. 

Further to the above, there is a moral argument against professionalism in college sports. Advocates of the current arrangement urge caution, as professionalism would diminish the spirit of college sports. 

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