The NCAA earns more than $1 billion per year because of the athletic abilities of student-athletes in multiple divisions of play. Dozens of sports provide opportunities for teens to earn scholarships so that they can pursue a degree while they play, but critics of this system say that isn’t nearly enough compensation compared to what could go wrong.
College coaches are usually one of the highest-paid state employees as well. Some basketball and gridiron football coaches earn salaries of more than $3 million per year. That means their wages are sometimes higher than their professional counterparts. If a school does well in a specific sport, then it may qualify for financial bonuses from a variety of institutions. Should student-athletes receive a portion of that since they earned it with their performance?
On February 20, 2019, Zion Williamson had one of his shoes explode on him while playing basketball. The consensus best college athlete for the season and future #1 NBA draft pick suffered a sprained knee. If he were to step onto the court again, then he would be placing his future at risk while the college and the apparel company sponsoring the program stood to bring in millions of dollars of profit because of the exposure.
There are several advantages and disadvantages to consider when looking at the idea of paying college athletes a stipend that goes beyond what they receive with their scholarship.
List of the Advantages of Paying College Athletes
1. Paying athletes would eliminate the need for additional employment.
Scholarships might pay for books, tuition, and the other common costs of going to college, but they don’t pay every expense that a student might have. It is not unusual for athletes to find a job outside of their sport and classroom schedule so that they have some spending money to use.
Some students don’t qualify for a scholarship, so they’re forced to pay their way while also participating in their sport as a walk-on. This process gives them an opportunity to earn one in the future, but paying them for their service would allow them to concentrate on their studies and athletics without as many distractions.
2. It would offer a financial benefit to many families.
Student-athletes receive thousands of dollars in support from their families as they pursue the college experience. Failing to abide by the NCAA rules, including the offer of an autograph for compensation, can make someone ineligible to play. Unless there are grants, student loans, or scholarship funds available, the cost of going to school falls on the support system of the student unless they earn a chance to play professionally. Since less than 2% of today’s student-athletes will become tomorrow’s pro players, paying them while in school would become the equivalency of a work-study program.
3. Paying students to play sports would offer another incentive.
Most student-athletes will graduate with a degree and pursue a job in their chosen career field. Even those who do make it to a professional league will usually find work in their major after their athletics career is over. The funds that they receive from practicing and playing would help to cover costs that a scholarship doesn’t touch, support an off-campus residence, and keep players involved in the system. It is not unusual to see teens decide to retire from the game they love because their future earning potential comes from their education instead of their athletic ability.
4. This idea would help to reduce corruption in college athletics.
The NCAA has an entire book of rules and guidelines for institutions and coaches to follow so that there is no corruption in the sport. Every year, there are still a handful of programs that go through an investigative process because of their recruitment behaviors. Some schools already pay cash bonuses to ensure the best high school athletes are willing to come play on scholarship for them instead of at a rival school.
5. Student-athletes could earn school credits for their performance.
One of the unique benefits of a work-study program is that it can help students accumulate college credits that can supplement their work toward a specific major or minor. You get to supplement your college tuition costs at the same time. Instead of offering a cash payment, athletes on a scholarship could have their funds go into an account where they can manage their on-campus expenses with less hassle. Then any amount in excess at the end of a semester could be withdrawn into an account.
This benefit would let student-athletes earn credits for the concepts and skills they learn while playing in their favorite sport just like a journalist would while working for the student newspaper.
6. It would lower the financial burden of tuition.
Since all student-athletes would likely earn a paycheck for their activities, walk-ons could earn an opportunity to reduce the financial impact of their tuition, room, and board. That means the cost of going to college would go down if you were willing to take up a sport and make the team. Students would gravitate toward the programs that offered them the most money or additional playing time, which means there could be a surge in facility upgrades throughout all of the NCAA divisions.
Critics suggest that only the schools with the most money would make the most progress with this advantage, but you see that element in all sectors of business. The best and wealthiest institutions will always have the most influence.
7. The best athletes might be willing to play at their school longer.
Most institutions believe that the purpose of going to school is to earn a degree. Star athletes will often drop out after receiving a professional offer, with many of them never returning to school to finish their education afterward. If you play men’s basketball, then there is only a 1-year requirement to be involved with the NCAA. Ensuring that student-athletes earn a paycheck can reduce the financial burden that some families would face when sending their child to college, which means it would become worthwhile to stay for an education before going to the pros.
List of the Disadvantages of Paying College Athletes
1. Student-athletes already receive a comprehensive payment.
Student-athletes might not receive cash payments for their efforts at this time, but they do receive financial compensation in other ways. Basketball and football players might pay a coach up to $3,000 per week to receive professional advice, strength training, fitness coordination, and health support from trainers and therapists in the days leading up to a professional evaluation. When you combine the cost of room and board with tuition and those resources, some students receive up to $125,000 in total compensation at some private universities. That’s because everything is provided to them for free when they are on scholarship.
2. College athletes can gain publicity through television contracts and other forms of exposure.
The best college athletes might want to receive payment for their services, but they also gain a lot of valuable publicity from their performance on the field, pitch, or court when playing. It is much easier for a professional team to evaluate the talent of an athlete when there is film available that covers the entirety of their college career. Since most schools don’t receive a portion of a student athlete’s salary if they turn pro, then the exposure that they get while representing the institution provides some value for everyone involved.
Some athletes will not receive this benefit, especially if they play in a lower NCAA division. There are limited expenses for students who choose to attend an in-state school as well. It should still be put into the conversation of what students receive in compensation for their services.
3. Only a handful of sports actually make a profit for a school.
Most colleges and universities have 2-3 sports that will help them to make money: men’s basketball, women’s basketball, and gridiron football. Most of the other athletics endeavors will generate little revenue while still costing the institution money. According to research performed by USA Today, only 10% of NCAA Division I programs (23 out of 228 active institutions) at the time were running a budget surplus. The number will fluctuate each year, but that means most athletic departments lose money.
It is also essential to note that every university that ran a surplus in 2012 was in an automatic-qualifying conference for the Bowl Championship Series. Every NCAA D1 school not in a major conference lost money. Adding salary requirements for their athletes would only cost them more money.
4. Do all student-athletes require an equal amount of pay?
When you look at the world of professional sports, most of the athletes that you see performing on the field, court, or pitch are earning the league minimum. MLB and NBA players have lucrative contracts that can pay them hundreds of millions of dollars over their careers, but those are the exceptions rather than the rule.
The average salary for a first-year player in the NFL is $480,000.
The minimum salary for the first 24 players on each MLS roster rose from $48,500 in 2014 to $70,250 in 2019.
The minimum salary for an NHL player will reach $750,000 per year in the 2021-2022 campaign.
Superstars make far more than the minimum. Ezekiel Elliot signed a contract that has over $28 million in true guarantees, including a $7.5 million signing bonus. Do all student-athletes deserve the same salary since it would be similar to a work-study program if implemented, or do the stars of a team deserve to earn more?
5. It would give student-athletes an opportunity to unionize.
If colleges and universities began to pay student-athletes for their services on the field, pitch, or court, then that action would likely be seen legally as an employment contract. That classification would give the athletes in the program an opportunity to unionize throughout most of the United States. That means teens and their families would need to manage the same conflicts that professional franchises and their professional athletes handle regularly. There might even be contract negotiations to manage in this situation.
The logical outcome from this disadvantage is that the best student-athletes would receive agent representation to maximize the potential of their value. Instead of playing for the joy of the game, there would be an elite group in each division working toward the best possible contract instead.
6. Institutions would likely cut back on their other programs.
Since the money to pay student-athletes must come from a budget line somewhere, there is a strong likelihood that less popular sports would get cut out of the athletics programs of most colleges and universities. Depending on what goes away, there could be adverse impacts on the students because there could be compromises with safety or professional training. This disadvantage would likely impact the quality of life, reducing the number of programs that the department would oversee since there would be fewer participants. Even though there have been scholarship program manipulation efforts at a high level at some institutions, reducing the influence that cash payments would have offers the chance to improve the learning opportunities that are in the institution’s degree programs.
7. There are equity issues to consider with paying student-athletes.
Since there are only three sports that typically earn profits for a school, that means an institution would need to use the money generated by the programs making money to pay everyone’s house. That would mean there would be income redistribution happening from the basketball and football players to everyone. It would not be outside the realm of possibility that a school might decide to only pay athletes if they belong to programs that make money. If redistribution does happen, then it might be tempting to pay the basketball and football players more for everyone else.
8. It could create a bidding war for the best athletes each year.
The current cap on student-athlete pay is $0. If payment were allowable in the future without a cap, then there would be a bidding war among the top institutions for the best players coming out of high school each year. This process would be challenging to control because the biggest universities could always outbid the smaller colleges that play in the same division.
Imagine a Big Ten football conference where Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State get the first run of players, and then schools like Nebraska, Iowa, and Rutgers try to compete with second-tier talent. It would create divisional dynasties where only the players at the best schools would have the chance to play for championships each year.
9. There could be Title IX implications with this effort.
Another problem that proponents of paying student-athletes would need to address in the United States is the equality requirements of Title IX. This issue would make it all but impossible to pay student-athletes in only the revenue sports since women make up about 15% of the student population in that category. That means paying one athlete would likely mean paying everyone. That outcome will either increase the total expenses of the program, add more fees to it, or lower the amount of pay that each athlete could earn while attending the institution.
10. You would have issues with grade-related performance.
If you work a job anywhere, there are certain rules that you must follow so that you can earn a paycheck. That would hold true for student-athletes since they would need to show up for practices and games to earn their salary. What would happen if the NCAA or the school issued an academic suspension to an athlete? A student’s grades in trigonometry aren’t a reflection of what they could accomplish on the football field.
By initiating a plan that would offer student-athletes access to a regular paycheck, the institution would de-emphasize the importance of an education as they do under the current scholarship structure.
The advantages and disadvantages of paying college athletes a salary presents several variables that could be problematic. Instead of looking at a system where students receive a stipend from their institution in addition to their scholarship, it may be worthwhile to look at letting the NCAA and similar associations to let athletes receive profits from the use of their likeness, autograph sessions, and the sale of game-related items which they own.
Taking this route would place the responsibility for earning outside of the scope of the college or university. It would let the student take advantage of their notoriety while avoiding many of the potential problems that would arise when paying everyone.
Keith Miller has over 25 years of experience as a CEO and serial entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, he has founded several multi-million dollar companies. As a writer, Keith's work has been mentioned in CIO Magazine, Workable, BizTech, and The Charlotte Observer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our content editing team a message here.