The question of payment for college athletes may seem trivial at first glance, when one considers the variety of other, seemingly more pressing issues facing universities today, but upon closer examination it becomes clear that the question of whether or not college athletes should be payed for playing actually cuts to the heart of budget crises plaguing so many American universities. For example, according to Forbes magazine, in 2011 the University of Texas Longhorns football team brought in $129 million dollars for the school, a not insubstantial amount considering that so many universities are being forced to reduce their budgets (Smith, 2011). However, this emphasis on the return has led to troubling practices, including improper benefits and exploitative contracts. Paying student athletes would likely reduce some of these back-door deals and exploitative practices, but formally turning these students into employees runs the risk of transforming sports programs from extra-curricular activities that support the university into businesses in its their own right. Maintaining the status quo is equally as problematic, because college athletes sacrifice time, energy, and their bodies for their universities, but a relative few see a share of the profits or go on to lay professional sports. After weighing the available options, it seems clear that if college sports programs are to be maintained, profit sharing is the best solution, but if education and the integrity of the university is the priority, then college sports programs, including scholarships, should be phased out in lieu of fitness programs that benefit the entire university community.
The issue of paying college athletes has existed practically since the inception of national college sports, and the suspicion that compensation might somehow corrupt the sport is almost built into its history. Specifically, early college sports organizations were careful to stipulate that all players be amateurs, meaning, in the words of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, that a player must be "one who participates in competitive physical sports only for the pleasure and the physical, mental, moral, and social benefits directly derived therefrom" (Freedman, 2002, p. 676-677). Demonstrating the difficulty of effecting change within the world of college sports, these rules have largely remained in place with little modifications for changing standards, leading to situations like the case of Jeremy Bloom, who was deemed ineligible to play football that last two years of his college career because of his previous success as an Olympic skier. Although Bloom had secured his status as a professional skier (with the attendant commercial endorsements) before he ever began attending the University of Colorado, the NCAA barred him from playing football, even though his "professional" status was entirely separate from his status as a college football player (Freedman, 2002, p. 678-679).
On the other end of the spectrum, NCAA investigations have turned up instances of clear wrong-doing, where students were given definitively unethical financial assistance in return for playing. For example, in 2005 Arizona State University was placed on probation after it was discovered that over sixty athletes had received improper financial aid benefits, as well as cash from selling textbooks improperly given to them (Wolverton, 2005). In this case, the rules about amateurism seem fairly innocuous, because it appears as if they exist to keep both student athletes and program coordinators honest. However, it seems as if for every instance in which the NCAA uncovers legitimate wrongdoing, there is a case like Jeremy Bloom's, where students are harmed not due to some genuine ethical lapse, but rather because of the inflexibility of the rules.
Some critics have suggested that the difference between amateur and professional is an imaginary one, because student athletes are already effectively treated like employees. In fact, according to a study published in the Washington Law Review, student athletes' "daily burdens and obligations not only meet the legal standard of employee, but far exceed the burdens and obligations of most university employees" (McCormick & McCormick, 2006, p. 71). Recognizing this fact in conjunction with the sheer amount of money produced by sports programs might make it easier to understand why compensating players might not be as far-fetched as it might sound.
Before moving on to the proposed responses to this obviously problematic status quo, it will be informative to briefly mention on more reason why the treatment of college players appears so inequitable, namely, the issue of coach pay. While it may be easy to understand why college sports programs would have a vested interest in making sure that players are not receiving gifts or financial compensation for playing at certain schools, when one considers coach compensation this rationalization becomes a little more difficult. Where college athletes receive no compensation for playing other than their education and occasionally a scholarship (things that are also available to all those students not playing sports), coaches can receive upwards of $1 million, with some receiving twice that (Byers, 1997, p. 8-10; Smith, 2011). This is not to necessarily suggest that college coaches should be payed less, but merely to point out that college coaches receive this much while their players receive nothing except for those benefits included in the definition of "amateur."
The most commonly explored option for dealing with these obvious problems has been to suggest paying college players, although this takes different forms. Goplerud (1997) suggests that athletes should be given a stipend, along the lines of those granted by certain scholarships and fellowships (p. 1089). This would effectively mean transitioning broadening the base of those granted scholarships to include anyone playing for the team, and Goplerud suggests a number of specific conditions that might allow athletes to be compensated without compromising the integrity of the sport.
Specifically, Goplerud suggests a "salary cap" to "be set at an average of $300 per month per scholarship athlete, with half of the money going into a trust fund to be paid to those athletes receiving degrees within five years of matriculation" (p. 1089). This would have the dual benefit of ensuring players are compensated more reasonably for their contributions, while encouraging them to maintain their studies and focus on academic success. There are a number of legal issues which would arise when attempting to set up this kind of framework, but the regulations surrounding college sports are so problematic that any useful change would require substantial modifications.
Acain (1998) goes further, arguing that student athletes should be compensated through revenue sharing, meaning that they would receive a direct cut of the revenues produced by the sports program. Acain notes that professional leagues all have some form of revenue sharing, and, like Goplerud, sees an expansion of the scholarship system as the means of approaching this solution (p. 336-337). If implemented properly, then revenue sharing could simultaneously help team cohesion by connecting players more closely to the success of the program while allowing them to receive a fair return for their labor, like any other legally-protected employee. Essentially, this approach is born out of the idea that if universities are going to treat athletes like employees anyways, then they might as well compensate them for it.
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In discussions of compensation for college athletes, there is a somewhat problematic presupposition that goes unspoken, but which informs the entire discussion; namely, the idea that college sports are something worth preserving in the first place. When critics complain about the unfair treatment of college athletes, the first response seems not to suggest that college sports be replaced with something more inherently equitable and less business-like, but rather that college athletes should simply be paid fairly so that the business is run more ethically. This is all the more surprising considering that there are genuine reasons not to continue college sports.
For one, college sports by definition represent a distraction from the central goals of the university, which is to educate its students. While there is the argument that college sports programs bring in substantial amounts of revenue that goes into funding the educational side, this is less a case of sports programs truly being integral to education and more of an instance in which sports programs, through their success and popularity, have made themselves essential even as other areas receive less funding. In other words, the popularity of sports comes at the expense of other fields, which in turn increasingly makes a profitable sports program the only option for many schools.
There is a more convincing argument that the scholarships which accompany sports programs give students who otherwise might not be able to attend college the chance to get a degree. In this regard, college sports programs could be considered at least as useful as any other extra-curricular activity which offers scholarships, but even then, the outsized attention and resources already given to college sports programs means that other departments are already suffering, such that it seems likely there are students who were unable to attend college because scholarship money was funding an athlete rather than, for example, a musician or an artist. While music and…