Some pundits have called into question the legitimacy of college sports and have reached the conclusion that student athletes, particularly those in such revenue-generating sports as football and men’s basketball, should be paid to play.
This may perhaps be true for a small percentage of hig-profile athletes like Jameis Winston or Jahlil Okafor, who bring in millions of dollars to their school, their conferences and the NCAA. But for the 99.9% of collegiate athletes who are in school to earn a legitimate degree, and play the game they love at a high level, pay-for-play is disingenuous at best, and potentially harmful to the very students it intends to benefit.
For the vast majority of college athletes, the value and marketability of their college degree will far outreach their potential value as a pro athlete. For every Tom Brady, Shaquille O’Neal or Chris Chelios, who is fortunate enough to enjoy a long lucrative pro career, there are hundreds of college athletes who do not make it in the professional ranks, or whose “careers” are cut short by injury or subpar play. A college degree is by no means a guarantee of financial stability, but a diploma is a better financial safety net than pro sports.
And we should not scoff at the direct monetary benefit of a scholarship, or the ancillary support services that are available to student athletes, including academic and career counseling and medical care. A full scholarship over four years can represent $50,000 to $200,000, depending on the school and type of scholarship; the additional services may double this amount.
Creating an “open market” in college sports will benefit a few but harm many others. In pro sports, players who play well in a contract year can make tens of millions of dollars, but players who play poorly lose their jobs. Paying collegiate athletes based on their athletic “production” will reward the athletes who excel, but could negatively affect those who underperform, are injured, participate in non-revenue sports, attend non-“power conference” schools or are female.
If “NBA ready” underclassmen like Tyus Jones or Karl-Anthony Towns were to earn a sum commensurate with their potential value in the open market, should they lose any of their compensation if they are injured and their NBA prospects dashed?
Large Division One revenue-generating schools may be able to operate in a pay-for-play model, but what about smaller schools that have trouble even filling their stadiums? These schools would not be able to “afford” to accommodate elite athletes. The thrill of seeing Cinderella schools like Butler in the Final Four, or Boise State in a major bowl game, will become a rarity. Furthermore, in order to balance the books while paying male football and basketball players, many schools would be forced to cut non-revenue sports like gymnastics, track and swimming.
And what about female athletes who, under Title IX, have had access to the same training and playing conditions as their male peers? Under free-market principles, most female student athletes would not be paid, since few women’s sports programs earn revenue.
Finally, it may not be difficult to work out a pay scale for the Alabama starting 11 due to their winning efforts, marketability and value to their university. But how should the fourth-string players for the Crimson Tide be paid when they rarely see the field? What about the football players at a school where football does not even make a profit? Is it possible to make dollar-to-dollar comparisons between athletes who play different sports? Should world-class swimmer Missy Franklin be paid to swim for Cal?
Without letting the market ultimately dictate the value of an athlete, determining a pay scale would be a capricious process. Compensating collegiate athletes may make us feel better, but realistically would overpay many who would never make a dime for their university, while grossly underpaying the small fraction of star athletes who are actually creating revenue for their college or university.
It’s important to acknowledge that there are a disproportionate number of college football and basketball players who are students of color and come from low-income backgrounds. Several substantive changes could and should be considered to level the playing field a bit more, including offering stipends and long-term medical insurance and allowing players to be compensated for the use of their signatures and likenesses.
But making collegiate athletes “employees” or “contractors” is another matter. For every superstar athlete who may bide his time in college before prospering financially from his prodigious physical skills, there are thousands of genuine scholar-athletes who will, as the NCAA says, “go pro in something other than sports.” For these kids, a free college degree is very serious business.
Jeff Anders, M.D., was a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at UW-Madison Health Services from 1995 to 2012, where he worked with many collegiate athletes. He also served on the UW Athletic Board from 2007 to 2013.