In its over 100-year history, the NCAA has undergone extensive reforms since its early days, especially in forming conferences, acquiring lucrative sponsorships and agreeing on television deals.
However, in the NCAA’s history, one practice has remained constant: Student athletes play for free.
Each year, more than 400,000 student athletes compete on nearly 18,000 teams at over 1,000 schools across three NCAA Divisions: DI, DII and DIII. The schools involved bring in huge sums of money each year from their athletic programs, especially those schools that advance to national championships.
Members of the Long Island University, Brooklyn, men’s basketball team. (Photo by Jim Mancari)
It’s easy to think that since these schools make so much money that the athletes — the actual performers in the athletic competition — would be entitled to a share of the earnings. But as it stands, the NCAA views student-athletes as amateurs who represent their school, not themselves, during athletic contests.
So let’s delve into the question: Should college athletes be paid?
Though a scholarship covers the cost of attending the university, many student-athletes are living below the poverty line, since they have no other source of income. As part of their scholarship, student athletes may not hold part-time jobs, since the focus is solely academics and athletics.
Mel Davis, a former St. John’s University, Jamaica, basketball standout and NBA player, suggests that each athlete be paid a standard figure of roughly $250 per month. Though he says it may be tough especially since some athletic programs lose money each year, he does think a firm system can be adopted.
“While they’re here, their quality of life can be so much better,” Davis said. “But I also think with the NCAA and the money that’s coming in, you can offset that.”
A 2010 study at Ithaca College, N.Y., reported that even athletes at revenue-generating schools pay an average of nearly $3,000 in annual school-related expenses not covered by their scholarships. Meanwhile, universities receive hundreds of thousands of dollars whenever one of their teams appears in a nationally televised game based on the television contracts and sponsorships.
“There’s a big pie of money, and I think you have to give these kids a piece of that pie,” said Stephen Boyd, former NFL linebacker and head football coach at Chaminade H.S., Mineola, L.I.
The NCAA makes more money in ad revenue per year than the NFL makes during its entire postseason, which includes the Super Bowl — the largest sporting event in the country.
Many supporters of paying college athletes claim the students can rightfully be viewed as employees of the university based on time commitment. Especially during championship season, student athletes may miss weeks of class for travel, games and media appearances.
“If we were to define what an employee does as opposed to a student, I think that not all athletes, but some athletes, should correctly be viewed as employees,” said Dr. Richard Southall, director of the College Sports Research Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
A Labor Rights Issue
An issue that has been debated recently is whether student athletes should receive free-market labor rights instead of pay. In this scenario, only the athletes playing revenue-generating sports at revenue-generating schools would receive a fair-market wage for the use of their image and likeness.
Dr. Boyce Watkins, a scholar in residence in entrepreneurship and innovation at Syracuse University, is a leading advocate of student-athlete labor rights.
“Most people would never accept the labor terms that we force athletes to live under,” Watkins said. “They wouldn’t accept getting $25,000 a year when they’re doing a $1 million job.”
Watkins said he would support the NCAA’s idea of student athletes as amateurs if the university and the coaches also did not make any money from athletics.
It’s no secret that football and men’s basketball are the two revenue-generating sports in the college ranks. According to a September, 2011 study conducted by the National College Players Association and the Drexel University, Philadelphia, Department of Sports Management, the average college football player is worth $120,000 per year to his university, while the average men’s basketball player is worth over $265,000 per year.
Student athletes in sports other than football and men’s basketball may not agree with seeing just those athletes being paid, but since their sports generate little to no revenue, there would be no argument for these athletes to be paid.
“When field hockey starts to generate $20 million a year for the school, then field hockey players can make the same amount as basketball players,” Watkins said.
The NCAA’s Stance
The NCAA and its member institutions stand by the principle that student athletes are amateurs and are therefore not compensated. Erik Christianson, director of media and public relations for the NCAA, says the “student” always comes before the athlete in the NCAA’s structure. In fact, only 1.7 percent of college football players and 1.2 percent of men’s college basketball players become professionals each year, so the NCAA stresses the importance of earning a college degree and using sports as a way to do so.
While it seems that all schools profit from their athletic programs, a 2010 NCAA report showed that the athletics revenue outweighed expenses at only 12 percent of the nation’s schools. The sports programs at other schools are subsidized by their respective institution’s annual budget.
“For those few programs that are generating more revenues than expenses, those monies are used to help to support the entire athletics operation,” Christianson said.
In DI and DII sports, many athletes receive full or partial scholarships to attend the school, which many detractors of paying college athletes consider compensation enough.
“We are students; we’re not professionals,” said God’sgift Achiuwa, a senior men’s basketball player at St. John’s. “I think the school has done enough by giving you a scholarship.”
Feasibility Not There
Even supporters of paying college athletes realize that the issue will not be solved overnight.
“Title IX says that for everything you do for a male sport, you have to do for a female sport,” said Jim O’Connell, national college basketball writer for The Associated Press. “So not only would we have to pay the football and basketball players, now you’re bringing in all these other male and female teams.”
“What are you going to do, pay the football players $200 per week and pay the soccer players $50 a week?” Boyd said. “I don’t think you can do that. If you’re going to do one-for-one you have to do one for all.”
It would likely be impossible to pay all 400,000 student athletes an equal amount of money even with the money the NCAA makes each year. Christianson said the practical reality of paying student athletes breaks down “rather easily” once all the factors are considered.
Still, supporters of labor rights argue that the market dictates what each collegiate athlete is worth. It’s once again a mere fact that football and men’s basketball are the revenue generating sports and should thus be paid accordingly, labor rights advocates claim.
“The only way that this issue is ever going to be resolved is if the athletes themselves stand up and demand their rights,” Watkins said.
In the end, the model of paying all college athletes is not quite there, and the logistics of labor rights haven’t been figured out. But as the NCAA’s revenue continues to increase, this is an issue that will gain traction until something is done.
“There are so many different problems and situations,” O’Connell said. “You probably can’t even come up with them all.”