The Compensation of College Athletes

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Each March, the nation tunes in with their brackets in hand to witness the rise and fall of collegiate basketball teams. Each Saturday in the fall, we huddle around in our school colors waiting with baited breath to watch college football teams take the field. College athletics is a part of daily life for people, similar to that of professional sports. However, there is one glaring difference for the athletes themselves – the paychecks being deposited in the bank. The compensation of college athletes is a hotly debated topic from college campuses to Capital Hill. But what exactly is everyone arguing about and where does this debate stand? Let’s break it down play by play.

Arguments for Paying College Athletes

Why do people think that college athletes should be getting paid? Is their academic compensation through scholarships not enough? The main argument is that the NCAA profits from the talent of athletes that work under its jurisdiction without paying them – just as an employer profits from the work of its employees. Defenders of compensating athletes argue that this is just an illustration of labor exploitation, making money off the name, image, and likeness of a person without paying them accordingly. According to NCAA financial statements, the nonprofit organization brought in over $1 billion in 2018 from college athletics, with athletes seeing little of that money. The Economist found that if college athletes were compensated for the NCAA using their image, name, and likeness in advertising, promotions, sales, etc., “the top 10 percent of football and 16 percent of basketball players would be paid around $400,000 and $250,000 a year respectively.” College athletes are providing value and talent for the NCAA, just as professional athletes are to their respective organizations; however, they aren’t seeing a dime. The cornerstone of the NCAA argument against paying student athletes is that the athletes are amateurs, as opposed to professionals. However, it can be argued that college athletics is anything but ‘amateur hour’, with the increasing caliber of the game rivaling that of professional games. For many, college athletics is a stepping stone to the NBA, the NFL, the MLB, etc. These college athletes are celebrities and sport stars in their own rights. They are household names – the only thing that distinguishes college athletes from professional athletes is that they have to go to class on Monday morning.

Arguments Against Paying College Athletes

On the other hand, is the NCAA just being greedy in not paying their athletes, or is there a legitimate reason? Do people believe that rewarding athletes for their talent will change the game altogether? One of the major concerns is that athletes from the top performing schools would receive the majority of the NCAA money. Currently, the NCAA equally distributes the $1 billion amongst college athletic programs. This allows for a more equitable distribution of funds for different sports, colleges, athletes, and programs. People fear that if the allocation of funds was to be changed, all the money would go to the top 1% of players, leaving the rest without funding. If the money is channeled to those that bring the most value, the most money, and the most viewership, where does it leave the smaller schools? Where does it leave the athletes that aren’t on the starting lineup? People argue that the integrity of the game is lost at that point, and it becomes an unfair playing field that favors only athletes projected to be first round picks in the major leagues. This would affect the ability of schools to recruit talent, their ability to have the adequate funds and facilities to train athletes, and their ability to remain competitive.

Another argument is that these kids are students first and foremost. Monetary benefits for student athletes currently include scholarships and academic assistance. Higher education is not cheap, and many feel that a full ride scholarship is adequate funding for athletes. Paying athletes would blur the line between professional and college athletics too much, and the primary role of students could become similar to that of employees (although some would argue that is already the case).

Where the Debate Currently Stands

California recently passed legislation allowing college athletes to use their name, image, and likeness in order to hire agents and work with advertisers, which is currently banned by the NCAA. California schools could face fines and potential expulsion from the NCAA for passing this legislation; however, the California governor felt that the risk was worth the fair compensation of players. After initial resistance, the NCAA has now decided to reevaluate its policies that have prohibited student athletes from being appropriately compensated. These plans are in the very initial stages; therefore, we won’t see any major changes for years to come. In order to expedite this process on a national level, prominent members of Congress are working on legislation that would allow athletes to monetarily capitalize on their likeness.

What the Future Looks Like

In the future, will we see college athletes paid as employees of the NCAA? Will their payment remain in terms of scholarships and financial support for their programs? Or will the rising conflict between athletes, the NCAA, and law makers bring about an entirely new system? This debate is still in its infancy and there will be a while before any definitive decisions are made, but it seems that the NCAA might finally reassess their long held stance on player compensation. The only thing that we know for sure is come game day, we will all still be found wearing our maroon and white.

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of EKU or our affiliated programs.

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