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The case for paying college athletes

first column

As it basked in the glory of an NCCA basketball championship, that school down the road continued to grapple with the potential fallout over a long scandal involving padding courses and grades for many men’s basketball and football players. For years, UNC athletes were steered into taking what turned out to be nonexistent classes with the blessing of top university administrators to ensure that their GPAs satisfied the requirements for eligibility.

Former basketball standout Rashad McCants made headlines when he described the easiness of these paper classes. “You’re not there to get an education,” he said in 2014. “You’re there to make revenue for the college. You’re there to put fans in the seats. You’re there to bring prestige to the university by winning games.”

While the ongoing investigation surrounding academic fraud provides fodder for amusing signs when we play UNC, it highlights the issue of amateurism in college revenue sports and the artificial and anachronistic distinction between students and athletes.

Former Duke basketball star and ESPN commentator Jay Bilas has passionately advocated for college athletes to receive more meaningful compensation than they now get. Athletes, Bilas notes, are the only college students who cannot profit from their talents. Musicians, actors, and entrepreneurs can make significant money while in school. Yet athletes are bound by NCAA rules that prohibit them from being paid or receiving endorsement deals.

There are vital reasons for reform. The amount of money coaches, venders, and universities make from athletics—particularly football and basketball—is colossal. Consider that the cheapest tickets for the 2015 Final Four were $1200. The semifinals that year attracted over 16 million viewers and over 27 million viewers tuned into the national championship. That year, Duke’s basketball team took in $27 million, and its football team $25.2 million. Just from coaching Duke, Mike Krzyzewski made over $4 million—not including money from endorsements—in 2014, which is significantly higher than President Brodhead’s salary that year. Brodhead made about $1.1 million, which is half of what football coach David Cutcliffe made. If coaches and athletic programs can rake in so much money, then it is only fair that athletes share in the profits.

The time investment that athletes put into their sport resembles that of a professional. Practicing for many hours a day, watching film, and travelling represent a major time commitment. If students spent that much time perfecting their musical or acting skills or developing the next Facebook or Microsoft, they’d be able to profit. College athletes should have that same right.

Despite arguments to the contrary, paying athletes would not give top ranked schools more talent. Sure, basketball programs at Duke and Kentucky could pay the most for the top recruits. But this competition already occurs without large outlays to students. In fact, paying players could benefit mid-major schools. If big-time programs spent large sums on the most highly coveted players, their payrolls would be more depleted than those of mid-majors. Duke or Kentucky could offer their most prized recruits money that cannot be turned down, but their third or fourth choices might be able to find more from a Wichita State or Butler.

The notion that paying college revenue-sport athletes would make the games less entertaining or ruin the college experience does not logically make sense. Coaches are paid millions.

And if athletes are paid, there might be fewer one-and-dones, a particular concern in men’s basketball. Few coaches are thrilled about the one-and-done system, where top players leave school after one year for the NBA. Yet, leaving for the NBA makes financial sense if a player’s draft stock peaks. Paying players could guarantee them a degree of financial security, and prevent some from leaving prematurely.

Any method of compensation for college athletes would attract critics and raise questions. Would only athletes in revenue sports, such as football and men’s basketball get paid? If there are large discrepancies between pay for male and female athletes, would that violate Title IX? And would paying athletes disproportionately benefit schools in Power Five Conferences such as the ACC, Big-10, Big-12, Pac-12 and SEC?

Different proposals have been floated, but ideally there could be a balance between ensuring that small schools could compete, while maintaining free market principles. A salary cap represents a compromise. Joe Nocera, a sports writer for The New York Times and a leading proponent of this idea, believes that cap would be $650,000 for men’s basketball and $3 million for football. Whatever the salary cap, each player could be paid a minimum, and the schools could use the remaining money to woo recruits, which would satisfy the free marketers. Upon committing, athletes would sign contracts with the university, guaranteeing that they would stay for a specified amount of time. These contracts could be renewable for up to four years.

Under a salary cap system, there would need to be a players’ union, since salary caps violate antitrust law unless negotiated by a third party. Such an organization exists. However, the National College Players Association is toothless. Under this proposed system, the NCPA could negotiate with the NCAA regarding the salary cap and minimum salaries, as well as marketing rights for players.

A salary cap is far from perfect. It may still disproportionately benefit universities with deeper pockets. Focusing compensation almost exclusively on football and men’s basketball players might cause lawsuits. And some might argue that a salary cap system does not go far enough in compensating athletes.

Every student should have the right to compensation for their talents. The issue of college athlete compensation is not only an economic issue, but a moral one. Is it fair that athletes—who provide immense revenues for a school—are unpaid? Rather than emphasizing the obsolete notion of amateurism and promoting the term “student athletes,” the NCAA should do what is right for the athletes: enable them to receive compensation, while ensuring that smaller schools do not lose out in this market.

Max Labaton is a Trinity sophomore and a Chronicle columnist.

Max Labaton

Max Labaton is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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