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Pay for Play: The Unequal Business of College Athletics

Only one of these guys got paid for this. Guess which one.
Only one of these guys got paid for this. Guess which one.Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Shaun TobackCorrespondent IApril 1, 2011

For the NCAA, mid-March to early April is a great time of year. Thanks to the Men’s Basketball tournament, profits are high, and visibility is higher. Even the most casual fan has their eyes glued to March Madness, giving college sports an access to demographics that would normally be out of reach. It is a national audience at it’s broadest, and more importantly at its cheapest. But this season I can’t watch. Don’t get me wrong, I love the on-court product. It’s what is behind the curtain that bothers me more and more every year. And this year the hypocrisy of it all is killing me.

I used to be able to ignore it, to suspend my disbelief and pretend that the athletes I enjoy watching are more than cogs in a machine that makes the rich richer. But as the seasons draw on, and the financial inequity that is inherent to the NCAA system becomes more and more obvious, I am finding it increasingly difficult to support a system that is so blatantly abusive.

College sports are a cash cow. No one disputes this, not the college presidents, TV advertisers or student athletes themselves. In every way, major college sports (primarily men’s basketball and football) act as minor leagues for professional organizations. Well, except for the small fact that the workers themselves are not fairly compensated for the revenue they generate. But otherwise it’s exactly the same.

Let me begin by addressing a common response given by those in favor of maintaining the status quo in college sports. These people will argue that college athletes are paid in scholarships. They are given an education that is potentially worth more than what they will earn as professional athletes, if they are even good enough to make it that far.

At the lower levels of college athletics, this is fine. For the tennis players, swimmers, soccer players, and gymnasts, the compensation they receive in the form of a free education is totally appropriate for the levels of revenue that they generate for schools. I don’t have anything at all against these athletes, and I’m not saying that what they do is ultimately less important than what a basketball or football player does. I’m simply pointing out the reality that their sports are worth less economically.

The basketball and football programs of major universities are what generate the major revenue, and thus the football and basketball players themselves should be compensated in a greater way than other athletes. I’m not saying to give college basketball and football players the whole pie, but they certainly deserve a piece of it.

Additionally, “paying” college football and basketball players with scholarships speak only to the blinders worn by the universities. Student athletes at the highest level are playing sports for the possibility of financial compensation, not free education. In fact many of these athletes come from situations that are so deprived of quality education that they are unprepared for life at a major university.

But living life in a situation you have not been prepared for during your life is just another burden college athletes must bear in silence. They can’t form a union and they can’t speak out against the NCAA system. To boot, many of them don’t want to be attending college in the first place, but are forced to by NFL and NBA rules that prohibit them from benefitting financially from their considerably valuable skills.

In all other forms of major athletics, athletes are recognized as the commodities they are. The owners and advertisers realize that these athletes are what generate revenue, and the athletes are paid more and given more power as a result. Not only are the athletes are paid more than coaches, they can also sign endorsement deals, further compensating them for their value. It seems fair that the markets in which they exist determine their values. But major college athletics operate in exactly the opposite way.

In college sports, it is the management that has the power, the college presidents, the coaches and the administrators. They make the rules and have no intention of changing them. Truthfully, this is understandable. After all, it is the current system that has made them very rich. Year after year they continue to profit off of the athletes at their schools. The institutions and those running them continue to get wealthier and wealthier, continually gaining from the free advertising that is unpaid student athletes.

Last year, Nick Saban’s contract paid him $3.9 million. Over at Kentucky, John Calipari made $3.3 million in base pay. Yet no athlete at either school got paid. Nor did they see a dime of the $79.7 million in revenue generated by Kentucky sports, or the $129.3 Million produced by Alabama. In any other walk of life this would be called slavery, or indentured servitude at best. In college sports it is standard operating procedure.

This issue is especially important today because college sports have undergone a major transformation in the last 30 years, while the rules that govern it has not. In 1985, it was fine that coaches and presidents were paid while students were not because in 1985 college sports were nowhere near as profitable as they are now. An education-based compensation was more equitable in those days. There were no TV deals, 24/7 media coverage, or billions of dollars being generated by college athletics. But things have clearly changed. It isn’t 1985 anymore.

But in the minds of college coaches and presidents, times haven’t changed. They don’t want to see their bottom line reduced, so they do everything they can to exploit the current system. They sell merchandise. They take endorsement deals — for the school, not the individual players. They expand postseasons and even sell naming rights for their highest profile events to the highest bidder. It is the blatancy of this extortion that makes it so hard to watch.

Well, that and the hypocrisy. It is infuriating to watch as the NCAA punishes, investigates, and publicly shames any athlete who — God forbid — tries to get a little bit of the money he is generating. The Auburn University football program made millions last year, yet all we in the public hear is how terrible a person Cam Newton must be for allegedly asking for $180,000. 

Reggie Bush had his Heisman Trophy taken away because he was allegedly paid about $100,000, and his parents were given a house to live in. Never mind that Bush was one of the top recruits in the nation, and would likely have garnered hundreds of thousands more from USC were the market truly open and truly fair, as it is in nearly every other walk of life in America. All that mattered was that he got paid a couple years too soon for the rich folks at the NCAA.

And what do these folks do with their riches? They reinvest. They put more and more into college sports, and the profile of these sports (along with the revenue they generate) continues to grow. They have built an empire on the backs of an unjustly compensated minority. A very American idea to be sure, but also a very disturbing one. It is incredibly easy to make a profit when you don’t pay your workers, but that doesn’t make it right.

While all this is happening, the establishments in college sports hide behind some false notion of nobility. College athletics are innocent, they would have us believe, filled with naïve youths who cannot be given the right to earn a living off of the skills they possess. Meanwhile, they are pimping these same youths for their own profit. In this day and age, it is not a matter of whether college sports generate profit; it is a question of how much. With the answer consistently topping hundreds of millions, is it really surprising that athletes seek to make money before they technically “turn pro”? And is it really fair that they cannot?

I’m not pretending to have the answers, but that’s not the point. The point is that the answers are out there, and those who have the power to affect change are refusing to look for them. It is a fine line to walk between total exploitation of college athletes and overpaying teenagers, prematurely turning them into what we as sports fans hate most about professional athletics. But there must be a middle ground, where athletes are paid without being totally spoiled, compensated but not worshipped. I’m not sure what this dollar amount is, but trying to find it can only be a step in the right direction — a step towards some measure of equity.

It's 2011, college sports are what they are. Why can't we start acting like it?


[1] http://www.usatoday.com/sports/college/football/2009-coaches-contracts-database.htm

[2] http://www.scribd.com/doc/13865464/John-Caliparis-contract-with-the-University-of-Kentucky-

[3] http://www.ensbsn.com/2010/11/sec-revenue-2009-10-the-alabama-money-machine/

[4] http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/news/story?id=2588347

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