To Pay or Not to Pay College Athletes

Why the issue of paying college athletes is more complicated than it seems.

Bela Kirpalani, Deputy Managing Editor

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past two weeks, you know that we are in the midst of March Madness, the biggest college basketball tournament in the nation. Over 97 million people in over 180 countries watched last year’s tournament. The National Collegiate Athletic Association raked in over $1 billion during the 2016-17 academic year. According to its official website, the NCAA allocates around $216 million to Division I schools to help fund their sports and provide scholarships for college athletes.

There has always been extensive debate over whether or not Division I college athletes should be paid. After all, student athletes receive a free education, meal plans and travel expenses, and don’t forget about the free Wi-Fi. On the other hand, colleges make millions of dollars off their players — both legally and illegally — while coaches get paid inordinate amounts of money, and shoe companies like Nike stamp their logos on the feet of the most popular athletes.

To many, paying student athletes sounds like fair compensation for the millions of dollars they generate for colleges, cable television networks and sports apparel companies. However, it’s not that clear-cut. As a New York Times op-ed from February said, “A handful of big sports programs would pay top dollar for a select few athletes, while almost every other college would get caught up in a bidding war it couldn’t afford.”

Some also argue that bringing money into college sports would take away from the passion and love for the game. I don’t doubt that.

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Maybe we should allow players to skip college altogether. If athletes know that they only want to pursue a career in sports, they should be allowed to make the jump to the big leagues immediately.

Take Europe, for example. Soccer players there are not required to attend high school or college. Instead, they go straight to team academies where they live, train and go to school. U.S. soccer star Christian Pulisic left his hometown of Hershey, Pennsylvania when he was 16 years old to move to Germany and make his career at the Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund.

Major League Baseball rules allow for high school players to be drafted. The National Basketball Association recently introduced a new initiative allowing select basketball players to skip college and play in the G-League, the NBA’s developmental league, for a salary of $125,000. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has spoken publicly of his desire to get rid of the “one-and-done” rule, which requires athletes to play at least one year of college ball or play internationally. Obviously, many top sports schools would not be in favor of this since it would allow their top prospects to bypass the universities and thus make the schools less money.

I understand that only three sports actually make colleges money: men’s basketball, women’s basketball and football. I also know that the top athletes in these sports generate a lot of interest and attention from the media and companies. Because of this, some people have suggested the Olympic model in which players would generate their own income from endorsements, autographs and control of their image and likeness.

Maybe athletes should be allowed to unionize. In 2014, the National College Players Association teamed up with Northwestern University’s football players to try and form a players union. If more teams believed in this and the NCAA changed its rules to support unions, that could solve the problem too.

The truth is that student athletes put in a lot of work, the risk of them getting a career-ending injury is substantial and the odds that they will make it pro are slim. In addition, many of them come from low-income homes and cannot afford to pay for other necessities such as food, clothes and books. To me, it is not inconceivable to conclude that college athletes deserve a piece of the pie they help bake.

The Sports Girl is a weekly sports column that will feature a girl’s take on sports. Yes, a girl. Yes, on sports.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 1, 2019, print edition. Email Bela Kirpalani at [email protected]

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