In a recent column in Isthmus, Jeff Anders, a former member of the UW Athletic Board took issue with pundits, like myself, who support paying college athletes.
In the spirit of having a continuing conversation on this subject, which is appropriate in a college town that is both big into its teams and big into social justice, let me respond to Dr. Anders’ arguments.
Underpinning Anders’ column is an assumption that if college athletes were paid they couldn’t or wouldn’t be students anymore; that they wouldn’t ever pick up a college degree that is far more valuable than their experience as a college athlete.
There are actually two intertwined issues here. The first is whether or not to pay the athletes what they’re worth and the second is whether or not athletes who play for universities should even need to be enrolled as students.
In my view there’s no reason why we couldn’t have more freedom all around.
If a good athlete wanted to play for a university he could do that and be paid for the services he was providing. He could be a student as well, but he wouldn’t need to be enrolled. So every athlete who wants to pick up a degree along the way could do that and be paid for his valuable services at the same time, just like having a part-time job. There’s no need to choose.
But under the current arrangement we degrade the academic environment by trying to make students out of kids who just want to play ball. The pressure to win creates routine cheating scandals, not so much at the UW, but in lots of other places. Kids who aren’t ready for college are admitted and pushed along not primarily because the schools are concerned about their academic success, but because they are good athletes who can contribute to winning programs and they want them to remain eligible.
Why not just drop the pretense of the “student-athlete” and allow those athletes who want to also be students to be that while allowing others who just want to ply their sports trade to do that? Being a student and an athlete doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive, but it doesn’t have to be mandatory either.
There’s also a fallacy at the heart of Anders’ argument: the idea that only stars destined for the pros create the millions in income from college sports. That’s simply not the case. It’s true that there are a handful of standouts, but the games couldn’t happen without all the supporting players. This actually bolsters the argument to pay all the players. If this were an apprenticeship with a certain future for meeting basic performance standards I’d be fine with the current setup. Players would be essentially just sharpening their skills for a payoff later on. But, in fact, very few end up making any money at all out of their sporting activity, yet they produce millions for others. How is that fair?
Anders’ raises the specter of sexism because only men’s sports are usually income producing. But the answer can’t be to exploit the male players producing the income so they can be on the same plane as female athletes or other male athletes in non-revenue producing sports. In the sports that don’t produce millions for universities, television networks and the NCAA, I’d say it’s fine to compensate them with a scholarship or with the sheer joy of competition. The equity issue only comes about when others are richly profiting from the labor of those who aren’t getting a dime.
Ander’s makes the case that paying players would make smaller schools less competitive. But that’s happening already. The NCAA has allowed the largest conferences with the biggest paydays for the NCAA to write some of their own rules including giving a small stipend to their players.
And why would it be a bad thing if some schools on the cusp decided to drop out of the competition for the big dollars and just concentrate on academics? Harvard did that a generation ago. They still have a football team and last I heard they were still well thought of as an academic institution. It’s true that the Crimson doesn’t play for the national championship any more, but who cares? Football is not what Harvard wants you to think about when you hear its name.
If it were possible to bring big time revenue-producing college sports back to some kind of ideal of the student-athlete I’d be all for it. But that would mean getting the money out of college sports and that just isn’t going to happen. An alternative that pays the players a fair wage and gives them the option of getting a degree seems to me to be the best solution.