Something for Nothing

College football bowl season is upon us once again and around this time every year there is the discussion of how screwed up the Bowl Championship Series system is (we’ll be able to argue about the playoff system next year), how corrupt and slimy the recruiting process is, and how college players should or shouldn’t be paid. All collegiate athletes in the U.S. have amateur status, meaning that they don’t (well, a more accurate phrase is “aren’t supposed to”) get paid for playing or from endorsements. The reason there always seems to be so much controversy with college athletics is because the fans are passionate and expect the world from their players, but they are also expected to be students first and athletes second. College athletes straddle the line between the glamorous world in which they are playing in front of thousands of adoring fans, and the drudgery of waking up before sunrise each day for training and conditioning while taking classes and attending practices. With what can seem like the weight of the world on their shoulders they are expected to act like every other teenager at their university. Pro athletes, however, are on an entirely different planet in terms of being pure physical specimens that they are totally and utterly unrelatable both in lifestyle as well as body dimension to the average fan. There is this feeling that college athletes are still pure and similar to the average 18-21 year old, that is until they transcend to the next level where endorsements and fame can take hold. Additionally, with college sports there is a more tight-knit community feel to the local team that doesn’t permeate to the big leagues. Most prominent public school college football coaches are among the highest paid state employees, so whenever you pay taxes you’re doing your part to get your team to a bowl game, or to a 2-9 record.

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Earlier this season the high-profile quarterback for Texas A&M, Johnny Manziel, was accused of accepting money for signing autographs for a memorabilia company, which is considered payment, and therefore strictly prohibited by the NCAA. An investigation ultimately turned up nothing, but the bigger issue about whether or not college athletes should be paid took on a different angle as even former college football stars (who normally keep quiet concerning under-the-table payments) began to openly discuss the temptations to get paid early and the difficulty living on what is essentially a meager stipend, according to Houston Texans running back Arian Foster. In September, Time magazine ran a cover story proclaiming that now is the time that athletes should be paid and even Electronic Arts Sports, maker of the popular NCAA Football video game announced that it would no longer be partnering with the NCAA due to disputes over the use of player likenesses. The game will no longer be manufactured, and when such a big moneymaker has its production suddenly and unexpectedly halted, there must be big changes in the landscape of the college athletics on the horizon. Recent revelations show that the NCAA is now suing EA Sports because they were “unaware” that player likenesses were being used in these games for over a decade.

The NCAA understands that its stars drum up a lot of revenue and earlier this season when searching for a particular player’s name on the NCAA merchandise website it would take the user to the webpage where that player’s number (but not name) would be sold on jerseys and other items. When this was pointed out that the NCAA ended linking players names to their jersey number in order to distance themselves from the idea that they directly profit off of individual players.  It has become obvious that college sports, and more specifically college football and basketball, has too much money at stake and the NCAA is trying to pare any heads sucking at the teat of their revenue stream. Like the hydra, every time the NCAA cuts out one bad apple, two more programs replace it.

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The debate about whether collegiate athletes should be paid or not has been discussed ad nauseam but almost exclusively singles out football among the dozens of other sports, and is generally a very shallow take on the situation. Although football programs are the biggest revenue generator for schools, it only has a small slice of the number of student-athletes overall. What happens to the other students that train just as long and hard at their craft?

Whether or not student-athletes get paid is much bigger than the realm of sports. This has to do with how society views labor and what role universities should play as educational institutes or modes of producing wealth that also aim to educate as an aside. If someone or a body of people are producing a product or service that is not being compensated justly then this is considered exploitation. People will often cite that college athletes have their tuition, room, and board paid for, but what solace is that if they are generating millions upon millions of dollars for their school’s president and board members? This is akin to saying you get a $100,000 salary from your employer and you make your company $100 million on your own, but you should be happy because $100,000 is still a lot of money. This may not strike many people as inherently wrong but it is the definition of exploitation.

The national debate stops at whether or not to pay college athletes- some say yes, others say no- for a variety of well-intentioned reasons. The issue can get very complicated when you try a thought experiment on actually employing the payment of college kids in sports. If I were put in charge of ending the amateur status of college athletes, where do I begin to answer some important questions? First of all, who does the paying? Would the NCAA be in charge of paying the athletes by increasing each university’s entrance fee into the NCAA (a non-profit organization), in which the money then gets pooled together and evenly distributed to the schools to disburse to their students? Some schools are much more profitable than others and also have a much larger endowment from which to pay the players. Does this mean schools that are able to pay more to their athletes actually get to give them larger paychecks? Additionally, does each player on a team get paid the same amount, regardless of whether they are a starter or a backup, and regardless of the position played?

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Secondly, who gets paid? From a business standpoint (and as Temple University can attest to), very few sports teams within a school actually are profitable or break even. Does this mean that only the sports which provide capital for the university should be paying their sports stars? This may drive students from the sport that they love because they will try to pursue a sport in which they receive financial compensation and harms the spirit of intercollegiate athletics.

Perhaps the biggest question of all is how much should these “student-athletes” be paid? Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy (awarded to the most outstanding football player in college) in 2012 and reportedly Texas A&M had fund-raised $740 million that year, surpassing its previous fundraising record by nearly $300 million. Texas A&M Foundation President Ed Davis had this to say regarding the extra fundraising boost in 2012 and its star quarterback:

“People ask me all the time if you have a winning football team, do you raise more money? In normal times, the statistical data wouldn’t support that, but in an era where we are in, effectively, in the news everywhere and you have a young man like our quarterback who has been a media magnet and you have the success you have, I do think that euphoria does spill over into success in fundraising. I’m hoping we can keep it up.”

From jersey sales, ticket sales, merchandising, TV contracts, and national recognition, Texas A&M can attribute upwards of hundreds of millions of extra dollars to their school, athletic program, and research facilities because this 18-year-old kid decided to throw the football in College Station, TX rather than Gainsville, FL or a number of other top tier football programs. While it is true that he will move on to the NFL to make tens of millions of dollars himself, not every National Championship team member or even Heisman winner will even be drafted to the NFL and cash in on their success, yet they will still make millions upon millions for their school. So it is clear that athletics bring in lot of money for schools, but how should these players be compensated? Should they be awarded bonuses specified in their contracts? Because the college players are between the ages of 18-22, many of them will require financial advisors or agents at this juncture because they need to be equipped to handle the pressure and adversity that comes with getting large sums of money as a teenager in college and handling it responsibly. Because the schools are potentially the employers of these students and won’t always see eye to eye on payment amounts or bonuses, these advisors must be third party, which also begs the question, will the student athletes form a union like in every other major U.S. sport, and what kind of structure would it take?

As a strong proponent of fair labor practices, if player A is producing at a higher level than player B and is in turn making more money for the school by his/her performance then I believe he/she should be adequately compensated. However, many sports in college are team sports and require teamwork for success. How would the NCAA or school gauge the value of different players on different teams? Would players sign three or four year contracts or would their salary be negotiated on a yearly basis? If they settle on a 4 year contract, is that money guaranteed if there is an injury, or even if the student performs poorly and is cut? Will academic standards become less rigorous for the athletes to ensure that the school’s investment can spend even more time away from the classroom so that sports will be even more of a main focus?

If every athlete within all schools and within all sports is paid the same amount (let’s say $30,000 a year), then what happens to the extra money raised by star players by the nature of them being on the team? Does this extra money simply go to the school or the NCAA to do whatever it wants with it (with the majority going into the pockets of the higher-ups), and isn’t this still a form of exploitation? Additionally, $30,000 to a student at West Virginia University will go a lot further than $30,000 in a school like Georgetown where the cost of living is much higher in Washington D.C., so schools in urban settings will be at a natural disadvantage in this regard when it comes to recruiting, which I’m sure they would fight against.

How will state schools pay their student athletes versus private schools? As a former taxpayer in New Jersey, I was well aware that I was paying the salaries for all the coaches, trainers, athletic directors, etc. involved in making athletics possible for my state schools. If all college players get paid, taxpayers will be forced to pay the salaries of teenagers to play a sport. I can imagine that a lot of people will have a lot of problems with this. Some state schools are much larger than others, so how can we reasonably expect the smaller schools to afford the salaries of the athletes, or will the state subsidize the shortfalls of these schools? It seems if college athletes were forced to be paid then even more schools would cut sports all together or make conditions nearly unplayable for the players and more team boycotts across the country may ensue.

Lastly, universities are no longer just institutions for higher learning, they are businesses and avenues for making money for those in the administration. Does paying student athletes make it the final straw in making the U.S. college system just a wealth-generating tool rather than a knowledge-generating tool? What does this mean for the psyche of the college student who is not playing a college sport? What would a student who is paying full tuition and saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt think of the basketball player sitting next to them in the same class learning the same material and getting graded in the same manner but actually making money while sitting there? Of course there is always the big man on campus stud athlete that everyone knows is the star player who you would know if they were in your class, but what about when you don’t know who is getting paid and who isn’t? This is not like a scholarship in which the athlete is getting housing and an education in exchange for their athletic prowess, this is getting paid to be there, which is something entirely different. The argument could be made that because of the athletes, your school is getting more recognition and will hopefully be able to fundraise more money which will go towards improving various facilities (that obviously you won’t be around to see) that will increase the prominence of the school to make your degree more “valuable”. I get that, I don’t necessarily buy it, but I get it.

I have only scratched the surface in discussing the challenges and questions that face an impending sea change in college athletics. This is a very complicated issue that is much bigger than sports. I have not even considered how paying college players will impact tuition rates, which could be an essay all on its own. The bottom line is that the NCAA and universities across the country are making billions of dollars off of their pupils on the sports field and this simply doesn’t sit right with me. It’s not as if the money is going back into the school system to promote better research facilities or libraries. Rather, the money is going to those with prominent roles in the university, and it is also going towards updating the athletic facilities in order to recruit better athletes in order to get better on-field performance in order to get more money from ticket sales/merchandise/TV contracts in order to line more pockets with money. How to go about implementation towards rectifying the situation is riddled with more ethical and logistical questions, but no doubt committees and other layers of bureaucracy will be involved. I would love to hear thoughts on any of the issues or questions raised in this post and what the ideal situation may look like for the future of college athletics.

7 Comments

Filed under Business, Labor, Sports

7 responses to “Something for Nothing

  1. Bobby M

    If players were allowed to go Pro out of high school, the college athlete pay controversy would be far less of an issue. If an 18 year old would like to be paid then they should be allowed to take his/her chances and enter the draft. This would take much pressure off the NCAA and universities. Any “profits” should be used to buy more books or even provide more financial aid to the 99% of us that aren’t elite athletes. Like the old NCAA commercial says “most of us will go pro in something other than sports”.

  2. Yas

    Good post. This topic has really grinded my gears recently. If these kids want to play professionally (making a living playing the sport to support their families), they should be able to enter the draft/ try out for professional teams immediately after high school. Put the burden on the corporations (sports franchises) and the athletes and cut the middle man out. If the kid wants to hone his craft and become a more appealing player by going to college and having that experience he or she should have the option of doing so with the understanding that the institution may profit from them. I don’t see a way to pay kids to play college football and have it be wholesome. Thoughts?

    • I agree, except what does ‘wholesome’ even mean any more? These kids are taking out million dollar insurance policies on their limbs in the event of a debilitating injury. It’s not about learning for the administrators so it’s not going to be about learning for the students. It’s all about the Benjamins baby.

  3. To me, the bigger issue here is that the NCAA and most, if not all, universities function more like for-profit businesses than institutions meant to further a public good. Universities and the NCAA should be required to first use their revenues to eliminate the financial burden of attendance for their low-income populations. They should then have to use remaining money to enhance the educational and extracurricular opportunities they provide. In that scenario there’d be no need to pay amateur athletes because they (and all other students) would all be able to live comfortably and avoid debt while playing.

    I think Bobby’s point can be applied more broadly – If we really want this issue solved, we should start calling for university and NCAA profits and executive salaries to be repurposed into financial aid. Education should be a right, not an opportunity for profit.

    • Niranjan Kumar

      Ben you brought up a great point – the NCAA and most universities are functioning like for-profit businesses rather than educational institutions. I’ve thought about what this means for a while, and have arrived at two junctures:

      1) The NCAA and universities should admit what they are doing. Human nature is odd in that it rewards integrity, even when it comes along with an unethical act. If the NCAA and universities admit that they are generating money, at least people will stop feeling that they are hiding something or making shady deals with TV stations just to pocket money. It’s out in the open.

      2) When did education stop becoming a factor here? Graduation rates among these high profile athletes are abysmal, so not only are the schools minting money by exploiting these athletes, they’re also failing them in providing for their education (an argument could be made here that the athletes are responsible for their own education and grades, just like most regular college kids).

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