Should Major College Athletes Receive Pay For Play?

John StevensCorrespondent IMay 13, 2008

When I was asked to write this article I gave it quite a lot of thought. Having been in the same position as many of these athletes many years ago, I do share some of their feelings on this matter. However, on the other hand, I want to be as unbiased as possible about this and present a fair perspective. This is a question that has begged an answer and has been debated frequently for many years. It has gained momentum as collegiate sports has become a monstrous exercise in revenue generation for the universities involved.

The NCAA believes that amateur athletics should not be infected with the pursuit of capitalism, thus, maintaining its purity in terms of amateur athletic competition. It is a great goal and one that I would support if we had not already progressed so far beyond this. It is too late. To think that universities are not heavily involved in capitalism is to be deceived. They believe that their student athletes should be removed from "big business" and be solely focused on their "student life" and competing in an "amateur" environment, while they pursue capitalism at its finest. If you don't believe this, just read on and be enlightened. Amateur athletics is big business.

The counterpoint to this thought is that any young man or woman who is sufficiently talented, should be allowed to market their talents on the open market. I am all for capitalism, it is a fine thing. But I do also believe that obtaining a college degree is important as well. The average longevity of professional athletes is relatively short and what are they to do when their professional career ends? Studies have shown that college graduates who do not pursue a career in sports at the professional level, tend to make, on average, $600,000 more over the course of their careers than their counterparts who leave school early for careers in professional sports. That is a pretty good argument for staying in school. Yes, you should be able to market whatever talents you have and be able to capitalize on those, but parental guidance needs to come into play at some point as well. As I last recalled, that is part of the responsibility of parenting in helping guide their children in important decisions.

On the other hand, looking at the NFL, many leave early being enticed by tremendous salaries and potential bonuses that they see as providing they and their families with instant security. I can understand this. Everyone wants to help and repay their families for the sacrifices they all made to help these kids get to where they are and with a minimum salary in the NFL of $285,000 a year, this is fairly tempting. As great as these intentions are, the odds of long term success are fairly low. The NFL Players Association has shown that out of an estimated 100,000 high school players, only 9,000 ever make it to college football at all levels. Only 9%. Additionally, only an estimated 310(.03%) are invited to an NFL Scouting Combine. Of the 310, only 215(.02%) ever make it to an NFL roster. On top of that, at least 172 of those 215 last less than 4 years in the NFL. Long term success in the NFL is only available to about 43(.043%) of the original 100,000 kids who dreamed of someday playing in the NFL. This is a great argument for staying in school and getting a degree before attempting to pursue a life long dream of playing in the NFL. The odds of life long success and being a productive citizen in society are much greater by obtaining a degree than by chasing a dream far too early.

Now to the subject of this article.....should collegiate players be paid? I am a bit of a purist, believing that one plays for love of the game and of course, to obtain a college degree. But there are many who disagree with this thought process.

In 2003, Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers proposed a bill that would require that collegiate athletes at state schools in Nebraska be paid a stipend. The amount discussed was $100 per month to help defray expenses of the student athlete. This effort, like so many others, died. The funny thing is, when I played, I saw so many players receiving $100 a week for playing from sources outside the school, and that was a long time ago.

In 2007, Rod Gilmore of ESPN went to bat for the idea of collegiate athletes being paid when he stated in an article that the University of Texas had made 42 million in profit during fiscal year 2005-06 while Michigan earned 37 million and Florida earned 32 million. His assertion was that this revenue should be shared with the athletes who were responsible for producing it. He also asserted that 60% of NFL revenues are ear marked for player compensation each year and that he thought that was very fair for the universities as well. Had Texas chosen to share that profit with their 85 scholarship athletes on the team that year, it would have meant that each player would have received $494,118 on average. At Michigan they would have received $435,294 and at Florida they would have received $376,471. To me, that is just a bit out of line and I couldn't disagree more with Rod Gilmore. If we think we have problems now with players behavior, just put that kind of money in the hands of a 18-23 year old kid and see what happens.

Many critics of the system cite the revenues that schools receive, especially for football, and cringe when they say that this revenue is plowed back into facilities improvement and payment of coaches and their feeling is that this is just not right. They feel that the schools are benefiting on the backs of their student athletes. Well, the coaches do develop the programs that produce exponential results, but I can understand the argument when you hear that 42 of 119 Div I Head Coaches make more than 1 million a year and 9 of those 42 exceed 2 million a year. The average salary of a Div I Head Coach is 1.4 million per year. And, to draw top drawer talent these days, you absolutely have to have great facilities. Fan bases are demanding and it is from them that much of this revenue flows into college coffers, so in order to produce winners that the fan bases demand, one must invest in a great coaching staff and great facilities.

Coaches too, are part of the problem. When they recruit athletes, they tend to press forward the idea that their programs can help athletes progress to the "next level" instead of promoting the values of the education that these kids will receive. I can't blame them because that is what most great athletes at the high school level have as goals. Many don't come to college thinking of the degree they can earn and keep and the long term benefits that it will pay them for the rest of their lives. Most are thinking of the glory and big pay of the NFL and those are their goals. It is hard to blame coaches in this regard as they try to recruit and compete for the very best high school athletes that will keep their program producing big time wins year after year(which of course is what they are paid for). More and bigger wins equals going to bowls and perhaps bigger bowls and this equates to bigger revenues for the schools and the conferences. Like it or not, this is what the coaches get paid to do.

The system is what the system is. It is hard to get around it. Should student athletes be paid? That is so hard to say when the value of the education they have an opportunity to receive at a public university over the course of five years(now the average for most students whether they be athletes or not), is $73,550. At private institutions the number is higher as $161,535. Equating it to a financial number a full ride for five years is worth quite a lot, so one could say they are being adequately compensated for their service as an "amateur" athlete. Can student athletes survive and not succumb to injury? Can they overcome the odds and make it in the NFL? These are all long shots when playing major college football.

My opinion of this is that student athletes, if they have full scholarships, are well compensated for their service to the school and need to think analytically to insure that they get their degrees before leaving school. The odds of succeeding in the NFL are very slim and while your college is taking care of your expenses, you better get that degree. Life is uncertain and no matter what happens, they can't take your degree away from you.

If you are so gifted, avoid injury and are in the right place at the right time, you might be one of the small percentage that succeeds in the NFL. The odds are better that the degree you receive will serve you better in the long run.

No, players are well compensated with the opportunity that they have to receive a degree that will benefit them for life. They just need to make the most of it.