On Prohibiting Compensation of NCAA Athletes

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Due in large part to the recent autograph signing controversy of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny “Football” Manziel, the subject of compensation as it pertains to NCAA athletes has experienced a resurgence on T.V. and radio talks shows quite unlike any other in recent years. There is much debate as to whether paying collegiate athletes to play sports violates any ethical boundaries, given that many colleges and college-town business thrive as a result of merchandise sales and game nights. Despite the prevailing belief, however, collegiate athletes are compensated in a number of ways. Given the fact that athletes receive full scholarships for their athletic abilities, as well as the many perks associated with collegiate athletics, and fact that students who sign college athletic contracts know what’s in store for them, it is difficult to argue in any other direction but for the continued prohibition of monetary collegiate athletic compensation. Additionally, the difficulty with finding an equal ground on which to pay all players, as well as the availability of other options aside from unpaid collegiate athletics gives further credence to the notion that paying college athletes is simply not necessary.

Collegiate athletes have always been compensated for their efforts, but somehow the fact that they are not paid in cash has caused many to simply overlook the athletes’ remuneration. Regardless of the mass perception that universities are cheating student athletes, the reality of the matter is quite the contrary. Whereas most students attending 4-year institutions incur out-of-pocket expenses in the low six figure range, “a scholarship athlete doesn’t”, and since the inception of sports scholarships, student athletes have jumped “on the offer of tuition, room and board without hesitation” (Van Riper). And who can blame them considering the fact that almost all college graduates are forced to enter the professional workplace with substantial debt. For decades, collegiate athletes have, for the most part, been content to play university level sports when schools like Princeton and Penn are willing to foot the bill for their education. Then as now, though, there were also perks and bonuses that came with the territory.

In addition to a debt-free bachelor’s degree in the study of their choosing, there are other benefits of collegiate athletics that, while perhaps less touted, are potentially more lucrative than even the salaries of professional athletes. In playing for top-tier institutions, star athletes are afforded the opportunity to gain exposure “that’s bound to pay off in endorsements…the moment [they] turn pro” (Van Riper). It is a well-known fact that while professional athletes are well compensated, they often earn even more than their base salaries off of hefty endorsements from the likes of companies like Nike or Reebok. In addition to collegiate athletes’ exemption from tuition and tuition-related expenses, there are numerous other accolades that accompany star players of elite athletic programs. Chiefly among them are the “travel expenses, free gear, top-notch coaching, unlimited use of athletic facilities, and a national stage to audition…” (Dirlam). This is in addition to the exceptional notoriety that many athletes experience, both on campus and in the many restaurants and bars that encompass the athletes’ universities. Still, many advocates for compensation of collegiate athletes argue that not only is an organization like the NCAA morally obligated to pay these students, but that such expenses are well within the organization’s annual budget. Contrary to many arguments that claim the NCAA is awash with spare cash, though, the $800 million in annual revenue is still earned by an organization that is decidedly non-profit (Dirlam). As such, more than 96% of their revenue is redistributed to its member’s institutions (Dirlam), and the business structure of such an organization is not one quickly converted to for-profit endeavors. On a side note, one might struggle to encounter another instance where the public opposed a non-profit business structure, instead favoring a more capitalist approach, as indeed this is likely the first time that many have ever encountered such a proposition. Regardless, asserting that the NCAA should more equitably distribute its earnings to players is an illogical approach to solving the collegiate compensation dilemma.

One reason why many assert that NCAA athletes should not be compensated in addition to their scholarships is because students who accept scholarships are well aware of everything that entails the contract they are signing. As one author puts it, “No one is making kids go to school to make money for the colleges and universities…It’s rather like taking an unpaid internship to prepare for a better job later in life. It is a trade-off. An unfair one, but it is consensual” (Jackson). Looking at collegiate sports as more of an audition, as an internship, might put this whole compensation matter into perspective when you look at it from both sides. A student majoring in finance, for example, might need to apply for and be accepted into two or three different internship programs so that, by graduation, he can fully demonstrate the necessary skills to make valid contributions to potential employers. Many assert that such ideology should be applied to athletic programs as well, where student athletes are provided with four years of ‘internship time’ to showcase the requisite skills necessary for success in their chosen field. Unlike much of the current discourse that attempts to solve the compensation issue for college athletes, the ‘internship approach’ is by far the most equitable line of reasoning as it mimics what every other non-collegiate student in America must do to prove their worth to future employers.

Another issue that arises when one considers the financial compensation of collegiate players is the notion of player-equity. Because not every player is going to be a star quarterback during their collegiate tenure, the issue of how to equitably compensate all players presents a number of problems. For instance, one article questioning the fairness of such an approach states, “if you compensate student athletes monetarily, how do you decide who gets paid? Is it by performance or position?” (Jackson). As the purpose of education has been more and more focused on providing equal opportunity to people from all walks of life, monetarily compensating the players in athletic programs would present administrative officials with a number of hurdles. If players were to receive compensation based on their talent, how then would such talent undergo evaluation? And if any players were to be paid money for their abilities, it seems the only equitable course of action would be to compensate all players in the program. Clearly, compensating collegiate athletes with money is neither an equitable strategy nor a feasible solution for bettering NCAA athletics.

Perhaps the most poignant take on this controversial issue is the notion that athlete compensation simply goes against what society considers the essence of education: opportunity. Paying collegiate athletes throws a wrench into the gears of the idea that college is a place where opportunity is available, not sold. As one columnist puts it in a recent article in Sports Illustrated, “For every athlete demanding a paycheck, there are 10 deserving non-athletes who can’t afford to walk in the door” (Daugherty). College affordability is already out of control as it is. The reality of the matter is that higher education has more pressing matters to solve, such as figuring out how to get those deserving, underprivileged ‘non-athletes’ the education that collegiate athletes are complaining isn’t enough.

Lastly, the fact still remains that if talented high school prospects do not wish to play on the collegiate level absent compensation, there are other options. In 2008, the number one basketball prospect in the nation turned down a full scholarship to a major university, and instead “opted to sign a $1.2 million deal with Lottomatica Roma, a professional team in Italy” (Dirlam). High school football players have options as well, writes Zach Dirlam:

Much like the foreign basketball associations, the Canadian Football League does not have an age requirement. High school graduates wishing to play pro football can head north and sign a contract right away (p. 3).

With the onset of lucrative options for talented high school athletes that have the desire to ‘earn big’ immediately after high school, it might seem foolish to argue the merits or faults of the NCAA compensating its players. Still, there are those that simply will not yield until every collegiate athlete has seen his or her share of the NCAA’s expressly not-for-profit revenue.

While it is unlikely that the debate on collegiate athletic compensation will recede any time soon, there is a myriad of evidence to support the policies currently in place that forbid such practices. Citing the many accolades that students already receive when they play sports at the university level—free tuition, world class training, and the opportunities to associate with potential future employers among them—many sports columnists and former professional athletes are likewise in agreement that monetary compensation for college athletes is not only inappropriate, it is quite unnecessary.

Works Cited

Daugherty, Paul. "College athletes already have advantages and shouldn't be paid". Sports Illustrated. 20 Jan 2012, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/paul_daugherty/01/20/no.pay/.

Dirlam, Zach. "There's No Crying in College: The Case Against Paying College Athletes". Bleacher Report, 03 Apr 2013. http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1588301-theres-no-crying-in-college-the-case-against-paying-college-athletes.

Jackson, Scoop. "The myth of parity". ESPN Magazine. 12 Sep 2013, http://espn.go.com/college-sports/story/_/id/9666004/pay-play-answer-college-athletics.

Van Riper, Tom. "Sorry Time Magazine: Colleges Have No Reason To Pay Athletes". Forbes Magazine. 06 Sep 2013, http://wwwforbescom/sites/tomvanriper/2013/09/06/sorry-time-magazine-colleges-have-no-reason-to-pay-athletes/, see Van Riper.