Written by MPW

The debate on whether college athletes should be paid has been ongoing and intensifying for the better part of 30 years. The mounting pressure finally broke the dam with the NCAA recently making a momentous ruling to allow its college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness starting in 2021.

Should college athletes be paid?

Some people will say this has been a long time coming as colleges have made boatloads of money off the talent and personalities of players for decades. While the other side will argue these are amateur athletes and they’re being compensated with education and a college degree. Regardless of which side of the debate you’re on, I think we can all agree that in today’s day and age if a college athlete makes a few bucks off selling autographs or some merch, he/she should not be crucified for it. (See Reggie Bush having his Heisman Trophy taken away).

Reggie Bush and the Heisman
Reggie Bush receiving the Heisman Trophy in 2005

Revenue Generating Programs

The amount of money that major football and men’s basketball programs generate for colleges / NCAA is absurd. The NCAA’s revenue for 2019 was well over $1 billion. Then you have athletic departments for the top schools pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars themselves. This is done through huge TV contracts, marketing, and bowl games. Think about it this way, out of all NCAA sports, only 5 (all D-I) generate as much money as they cost to run. Those sports are football, men’s basketball, men’s ice hockey, men’s lacrosse, & baseball. With the lion’s share of the dollars generated via football. Football is the gravy train that feeds pretty much all other sports. If Suzy wants to play field hockey in college, she better support her football team because it’s subsidizing the field hockey program. It’s giving her a chance to play the sport she loves.

Let’s even consider non-athletes. I bet everyone reading this went to high school with a few people who based part of their college decision not on the fantastic mechanical engineering program or glee club, but on the strong athletic teams, awesome tailgates, and vibrant social scene. It’s literally part of the fabric that weaves the traditional American college experience.

College Athletes and the Student Body

College students preparing to watch college athletes
A University of Texas tailgate scene

Then you have haters who say paying college athletes separates them from the regular student body. Damn right it does! But they were separate to begin with. College athletes are not regular students. As far as the University of Florida is concerned, Tim Tebow can walk on water. But he couldn’t just casually walk around campus or hang out in the quad. He would be mobbed by people wanting pictures and autographs.

When you’re on a team, as much as you’re a part of the college, you’re also treated differently. You live a different lifestyle than the regular student body. I played collegiate lacrosse, yes, I know it pales in comparison to big time football. But the student athlete existence is the same (on a smaller scale). The entire team is on the same schedule, so you practice together, lift together, eat meals together, and party/socialize together. There are tutors and special academic advisors making sure you keep your grades up. Professors (at least the nice ones) may make exceptions to allow you to take exams at a different time because you’re playing an away game. Now amplify that by 1,000 if you’re playing basketball at Kentucky or football at Alabama.

Tim Tebow at UF, college
Tim Tebow at the University of Florida – Arguably of the best college quarterbacks to play the game

Who Cashes In?

And listen, I understand not every college has Ohio State’s football program. Not every student athlete is as famous and marketable as Joe Burrow. But not every student athlete will be able to make money off their name, image, and likeness. I would bet that only a very small percentage will be able to cash in. If Timmy, who wrestles at the Harmon Institute of Technology, is able to make some money while throwing dudes into a half Nelson, then more power to him, but I imagine those situations will be few and far between.

So, you have the NCAA and universities making money hand over fist from the talents of these players (mainly football and basketball). You have athletes that already lead a different lifestyle from your average student – with the Zion Williamsons of the world in another stratosphere. It seems like a no brainer to let the individuals who are able to make some green backs, do so… Well, not so fast…

Where does it stop?

Colleges won’t be directly paying their athletes, but the recruiting of top players will undoubtedly turn into coaches pitching how their university is the best place for marketing opportunities. Or how a booster/alumnus of the program has connections that will enable the player to profit. Also, the primary purpose of attending college is to further your education, not athletics, and certainly not to make money. Lastly, how long until it bleeds down to the lower levels of college athletics (smaller D1, and D2/D3)?

People will always try to copy or imitate successful tactics. Every coach already tries to toe the line with recruiting and scholarship rules, the same will happen in this new world. While indirect, the purity of college athletics is erased. Will we end up with free market trade in collegiate athletics? Time will tell.

An Inspired Answer

My two cents is that in a perfect world the athlete would play for the love of the game. Yet unfortunately, the payment of college athletes is already happening to some degree for top recruits, albeit under the table. Why not put a system in place to do so legally and put all higher education institutions on a level playing field? Also, the amount of money being generated is so immense that you cannot not let players have a slice of the pie.

Therefore, the NCAA needs to find a way to fairly and effectively regulate the compensation structure. It’s a slippery slope, filled with many gray areas, but my hope is that people much more intelligent than I, can come up with a method to achieve this. Otherwise, the entirety of college athletics could spiral into a polluted abyss where the emphasis and value would be placed on the all mighty dollar instead of the joy of the game.

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