The topic of paying college athletes has been the most debated issue in collegiate athletics for decades. Every autumn it is renewed with the new force. Despite the longstanding debates, it is, however, difficult to say “yes” or “no” to the question whether amateur athletes should be paid to play or not. The existing situation must be examined from all points of view.
A role of college athletes has drastically changed over the last two centuries and should be re-examined. Beginning as a means to “build character or contribute to an individual’s intellectual development” for middle- and upper-class students, athletic participation is no more an extracurricular activity that hardly demands a few hours a week (Flowers 346). Nowadays, collegiate athletics is a multi-million-dollar entertaining enterprise. Television broadcast revenues of college sports have soared to nearly $2 billion a year as CNBC has reported. Revenues from merchandising and other licensing rights were estimated to be $4.6 billion in 2012. Meanwhile, players do not see a dime from using their images on jerseys and video games. The athlete conferences are reluctant to acknowledge the athletes as their employees as it will entail serious payments and tax-exempts.
Amateur Athletes Should Be Paid to Play
For the last several years, a series of lawsuits was filed in the courts concerning violations of NCAA regulations on any unauthorized benefits. The Ohio State merchandise scandal ousted football coach Jim Tressel. A series of financial scandals at the Fiesta Bowl led to a $1 million fine, the firing of Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker and the indictment of five other bowl employees (Taylor). Meanwhile, what really can change the situation with amateurism is the lawsuit led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, who sues the NCAA with antitrust violations of law and seeks revenues from TV broadcasts of college games during and after their collegiate careers, as well as profits from merchandise licensing fees on video games and paraphernalia. The court ruling has moved the O’Bannon suit another step closer to bringing compensation and more rights to college athletes (Waldron).
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The main governing body for college athletics is the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The NCAA’s stand on paying student-athletes, as they prefer to call them, is categorical. NCAA president Mark Emmert is “adamantly opposed to” compensations for students, “As long as I’m president of the NCAA, we will not pay student-athletes to play sports” (Roberts). That stubborn stance comes from the old definition of college athletes as student-athletes. The hypocrisy hidden here is double-folded. Firstly, the amateur athletes are no longer as amateur as they used to be. They spend on training around 50 hours a week during the season with a “grueling workout of running, weight training, and cardiovascular conditioning, including long-distance running and wind sprints” (McCormick 106). Secondly, a term ‘student-athlete’ implies that a person is not mere an athlete, but is closely engaged in the educational process. Emmert states that they provide athletes “with world class educations” (Roberts). However, in reality, college athletes are more employees than students, and their relationship with their universities is an economic one (McCormick 106).
Ivy League schools supported the NCAA’s decision not to pay their athletes. The league, composed of eight private institutions of higher education in the Northeastern U.S., has a strict policy regarding academic standards for their athletes and does not provide sports scholarships. Executive director of the conference Robin Harris says, “We’re not going to do a stipend. Our general philosophy is that our athletes should be treated as close as possible to our students” (Eichelberger).
The offer of a stipend was introduced two years ago. In 2011, Division I schools were allowed to pay their athletes an additional $2,000 to cover their college tuition/ the gap between athletic scholarships and the true cost-of-attendance, which includes the tuition, room-and-board, books and other expenses. Not only does the stipend look like an inadequate sum (when a scholarship is worth $15,000 to $45,000 a year), but some universities disagreed that they could afford it. The motion was put on hold. At the same time, the universities can afford keeping coaches with bloated wages. A college coach can make as much as a professional coach, especially if one speaks about football. In 2011, Ohio State signed with football coach Urban Meyer a six-year contract worth $24 million. Top three football coaches earn around 5 million a year each (Warner).
With the existing state of affairs, almost everyone, but athletes benefit from the colleges seeing an increase in application to the athletic conferences reaping revenues for TV translations and selling the themed merchandise. Not all people seem to understand what it is like to be both an athlete and a student. The statistics from USA Today highlights that a typical player spends 45 hours per week on sports, which includes playing games, practicing and training (qtn in Linvill). Add to it approximately 40 hours that have to be spent on school, and it is clear that no time is left for a job to earn some extra money like all students do.
Athletes have short careers. Best years are spent working for free. Injuries happen. This year, the University of Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware suffered one of the most horrible knee injuries (Laird) during a March Madness game. Ware’s recovery goes well, but if the problem will flare up later in life, no insurance is there to compensate for additional medical care. That was the case for the former University of Oklahoma basketball player Kyle Hardrick, who helped Putnam City High School win the 6A state championship in 2009 and sustained a serious knee injury at University of Oklahoma in 2010. Hardrick’s health insurance did not cover all medical bills, and now he is in litigation with the NCAA for a hardship waiver (Casteel).
The tradition not to pay athletes has had a long history. Sports used to be viewed by college officials as “tolerated affairs” necessary only to “let go off some steam” and get fresh for intellectual activity (Flowers 345). It was organized by students with no help from the administration. Later, the leadership of universities understood that the student-run sporting activities can be used for marketing purposes to improve the image of educational institutions and to attract new students. The potential commercial possibilities were seen by sponsoring entrepreneurs. Thus, by the 1870s, “the foundation of intercollegiate athletics had been established” (347). With time, the student’s organization was substituted with business structures — professional coaches were hired; an extensive staff was needed to serve the whole college sports enterprise; proper stadiums were built; spectators were charged for viewing (351). From the very beginning, college sports were separate from the educational objective of higher education. Increasing demands for victories and successful athletic programs brought into the game “tramp” or “migrant” athletes who were not up to par academically but enjoyed the high performance athletic abilities (354). The amateurism concept let the elite institutions reconcile with the presence of working class athletes within their walls without losing their prestige. It begot the hypocrisy when in order to win competitions, universities had to have sports on the professional level, and in order to keep up respectability, they had to call it amateurism as it was ungentlemanly to receive money for doing sports. Therefore, it is possible to see that the intricate invention of the amateur code was a result of commercialization of college sports, and it was hypocritical from the very beginning.
The next step in securing the right not to pay athletes was made by the NCAA fifty years ago. The National Collegiate Athletic Association introduced the term ‘student-athlete’ to describe the young men and women who are athletes at their member schools. The stress on underscoring the status of both a student and athlete hides the fact that in reality, they are the NCAA employees. The myth of student-athletes has worked for many decades as a shield for the athletic conferences allowing them to obtain the overwhelming monetary gain in comparison to the bare minimum provided for athletes (McCormick 74). College sports are a multi-billion-dollar industry. By way of one example, in 2003, the NCAA signed with CBS a $6 billion-worth 11-year deal for the right to broadcast the annual men’s basketball tournament March Madness (McCormick 74).
Meanwhile, college athletes are compensated with grants-in-aid, such as accommodation, tuition, books, and other education related expenses, without the possibility to spend as they choose and work to make some extra money themselves. According to all legal standards, student-athletes are treated like employees: they perform services for the benefit of their universities; their daily lives are strictly regulated and controlled by the coaching staff. Their student status is subverted by demanding playing and training schedules with the football and men’s basketball seasons lengthened over time, or with a requirement to enroll in weight-training courses outside the permissible practice season, or attendance ‘voluntary’ practices on top of the required twenty hours per week (141). Students who once went to school only for an education and participated in these kinds of competitions in their free time now often attend these same universities solely for the purpose of participating in sports. The sub-standard academic performance among some athletes is the further evidence that they do not function primarily as students. Universities create academically undemanding courses primarily predominantly for athletes, not to mention special treatment from professors cutting athletes some slack and going easy on their weak academic performance (144).
The final nail in the coffin of the student-athlete concept is low graduation rates among college athletes, which shows that they are not primarily students. Many non-athletic students leave school without graduating due to financial reasons. For grants-in-aid athletes, the situation should be reversed. Under otherwise equal conditions, college athletes should graduate at much higher rates than regular students in general; yet they do not. Studies show that sports success can contribute to lower graduation rates of players (152; Grimm 18). According to a recent Penn GSE report “Black Male Student –Athletes and Racial Inequities in NCAA Division I College Sports,” only about half of black male student athletes graduated within six years, and 97.4% of BCS institutions graduated black male student athletes at rates lower than undergraduate students overall (Harper, Williams, and Blackman). The pressure to succeed at the highest level takes the focus away from the ‘student’ in student-athlete.
Over the last fifty years, the revenue-generating college sports have had the increased number of African-Americans. In fact, today, black male student athletes are 57.1% of college football players and 64.3% of college basketball players (Damario). Given multi-billion-dollar TV deals for the mainly white NCAA institutions, profitable merchandising deals for universities, and high wages for coaches, many view black amateur athleticism as “the new plantation” akin to the “exploitation endured by internally colonized people in the system of slavery” (Hawkins 13). Young athletes are lured into universities by perspectives to ‘make it’ to the pro-level. Meanwhile, it is a destiny of few. The rest often either lose their health after injuries, or turn out to be lacking “educational and life skills”, when their short sports life comes to an end (Damario).
Therefore, the true nature of relationship between the NCAA and college athletes is one of an employer and employee. It was unintentionally confirmed in the statement of the American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco. “We will not pay players,” said Aresco last month. “That is not what college athletics is all about, and it is the road to ruin. We will not establish an employer-employee relationship” (Heitner). The true reason behind the NCAA reluctance to pay for playing is the fact that it will result in huge losses. First of all, they will lose their valuable tax-exempt status. Second, if student-athletes are recognized as employees that will result in the full package: additional costs, including potential workers’ compensation for injuries, medical insurance, retirement benefit plans, etc.
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Proponents of the non-payment variant claim that even without getting cash, in the economic sense, student-athletes at a major conference school on full scholarship are “paid $50,000 and $125,000 per year depending on their sport and whether they attend a public or private university” in the form of “education, room, board, and coaching/training” (Dorfman). However, not all student-athletes are able to receive a scholarship, and not all scholarships cover the full cost of college. In addition, many full-scholarship athletes live below the poverty line (Mc 79). Actually, the point that college athletes are provided with all necessary such as educational and living expenses can easily be refuted by a mere assumption that it is not all that people need in that life. College athletes may need to support their families or any other expenses not covered by ‘grants-and-aid’.
Another argument in the discourse is that college athletes are exposed to publicity that is able to gain them contracts in pro-teams. It is supposedly easier to evaluate their sporting performance after observing their college athletic careers. It is a relevant argument, though it concerns only top players. In reality, a great number of college athletes do not become professional athletes. Only 2% of the NCAA football players and 1.3% of men’s basketball players joined professional leagues in 2006. Some never become professionals because of injuries suffered in college (McCormick 79).
Also, paying college athletes is considered non-realistic as it will provoke problems between the revenue and non-revenue sports, better and worse players, male and female athletes. Will it be fair if a football player gets more than a field hockey player? No, it will not. The life is unfair. Non-revenue sport participants should just accept it as it is. If a sport is unable to keep itself afloat, then there is no need for the school to keep it around. In other professions, people also do not obtain equal payments; all depends on the amount of abilities and talent.
Supporters of the ‘non-payment-for-college-athletes’ concept cannot see the difference between college sporting activities and any other “extracurricular” activities, such as flag corps, cheerleading, chorus, band apart from their living expenses paid for. It is being left aside that regular students have classes and free time that they can spend as they wish either for additional learning, earning extra money, or socializing. Meanwhile, for student-athletes, education cannot be their first concern as demanding playing schedules effectively bar them from studying as true students and leave no time for an extra job.
The main culprit in the existing situation is the presence of the NCAA. It is absurd that the money do not go directly to the schools which the players represent but to a third party organization. Not least because the American public, including athletes, has taken in stride the widespread inequities that the most revenue-generating college sports programs were ridden with. The NCAA has no right to appeal to amateurism as there is no such thing. As Taylor Branchsep concludes in his article “The Shame of College Sports,” “any attempt to create [a legal definition of amateur] in enforceable law would expose its repulsive and unconstitutional nature—a bill of attainder, stripping from college athletes the rights of American citizenship.”
While the O’Bannon case is not finalized, in November, Sports Illustrated.com informed that it “took a major step towards empowering current and future college athletes” by both parts to begin settlement discussions. The NCAA remains a defendant in the case. In 2011, Sports Illustrated published an editorial in favor of allowing college athletes to be paid by outside sources without compromising their eligibility (Branchsep).
The educational premise that lays in the basis of amateur athletics is absolutely unnecessary; in fact, high-level sporting activities are often perceived as a distraction for proper academic results. When placing college sporting activities within a proper historical context, the understanding comes that its role in the higher education must be revised. “People generally had no idea what was occurring in the college philosophy or history class, but could easily relate to the institution through a visible athletic program” (Flowers 352). Mixing education with high-profile entertainment turned to be not the best idea in the long run.
The solution is to employ the best athletes to win and pay them for promoting their institutions, or separate sporting activities and not mix them up with the higher education. With thoroughly commercialized college sports, college athletes deserve some kind monetary compensation for all the work they put into promoting the prestige of university sports teams. It should be nothing outrageous like what professionals make but just something equivalent to what an average college student would make at a part-time job.