There's No Crying in College: The Case Against Paying College Athletes

Zach Dirlam@Zach_DirlamSenior Analyst IIApril 3, 2013

Do college athletes deserve to be paid?
Do college athletes deserve to be paid?Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Over 20 years ago, the rise of the Fab Five basketball team at the University of Michigan helped spark what is now one of the most debated topics in all of sports.

Should college athletes get a piece of the $871.6 million pie the NCAA brings in annually?

The answer is simple: No, absolutely not.

College athletes are already being paid with an athletic scholarship that is worth between $20-$50,000 per year.

Oh, and that does not even begin to factor in the medical and travel expenses, free gear, top-notch coaching, unlimited use of elite athletic facilities and a national stage to audition for a job in the professional ranks.

All of those perks are paid for in full by the universities these athletes choose to attend.

Before attempting to discredit some of the cases for compensating players at the college level, let's take into account all of the things they already receive cost-free.

Athletic scholarships cover just about everything a student-athlete needs to survive for four years at a major university. Campus housing, daily medical care and free meals via training table are all included. Tuition and books are covered as well. 

None of those things are cheap. It costs $57,180 to attend Duke University. The University of Texas charges $35,776 for out-of-state enrollees. Even Butler University charges $31,496 per year.

This means many college athletes are being reimbursed with nearly as much money as the average American makes per year.

Leaving a four-year college with a degree will help former players earn more money than those who only have a high school diploma, regardless of whether or not they move on to a professional sports career.

Students who attain a Bachelor's degree will make $1.1 million more in their lifetimes than non-graduates.        

Traveling around the world is another privilege these student-athletes are afforded.

The Michigan State Spartans and Connecticut Huskies opened the college basketball season in Ramstein, Germany. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Navy Midshipmen played in the Emerald Isle Classic in Dublin, Ireland last year. Michigan sent its football team to train with Navy SEALS in San Diego, before opening the 2012 regular season at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Tex.

Numerous basketball tournaments are held at tropical venues. Seven schools get to play in the Maui Invitational every year. Others will head to the Battle for Atlantis in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico Tip-Off or the Paradise Jam.

Some people scrolling through this article can only dream of being able to visit any of those locations. 

Each and every athlete will leave their university free of debt. I'm willing to bet some of you reading this are still paying off college loans, or took quite a while to do so.

Heck, I have racked up over $80,000 in tuition fees over the past four years in college. I work in an athletic department to help pay off my debts. Athletes pay theirs off by going to practice and performing in games. 

Even still, there are several arguments people come up with for why college athletes deserve a paycheck on top of the numerous benefits they are already being given. 

The Fair Market Value Argument

This is one of the more common stances pay-for-play supporters take. The idea that players are not being paid their "fair market value," however, is a complete myth. 

The two sports impacted by this argument the most are football and basketball, because their revenue funds just about every other varsity team at most universities.

These athletes have to be worth millions, right? Wrong. College athletes are not worth a single cent on the open market, at least until they are eligible for the NBA or NFL draft.

Changes to the NBA draft eligibility requirements brought an end to high school athletes heading straight to the professional ranks. Now, NBA hopefuls must be one year removed from high school to enter the draft.

Meanwhile, NFL prospects have to wait three years before they can be drafted. 

Every student-athlete knows they cannot get paid in college, but if they do not like it there are other options. 

Brandon Jennings was the No. 1-overall basketball prospect in the country in 2008. Instead of attending college, Jennings opted to sign a $1.2 million deal with Lottomatica Roma, a professional team in Italy.

The Compton, CA product was drafted 10th by the Milwaukee Bucks after playing one season overseas.

Much like the foreign basketball associations, the Canadian Football League does not have an age requirement. High school graduates wishing to play pro football can head north and sign a contract right away.

The No. 2 running back in the class of 2009, Bryce Brown, flirted with the CFL before eventually signing a letter of intent for the Tennessee Volunteers. 

Instead of choosing this route, though, NFL and NBA hopefuls take their talents to the NCAA. The media exposure, coaching and training provided by the universities is far better than the athletes will receive in foreign markets. Going to classes is simply the tradeoff for reaping these benefits.

In my opinion, if an athlete is talented enough, professional scouts will draft them whenever they become eligible. I am truly surprised most of the top high school athletes do not choose to play overseas. I mean, they feel they are good enough to be paid, right? Go prove it. 

Paying College Athletes Will Eliminate Scandals

Contrary to popular belief, the recent scandals involving the Ohio State Buckeyes, Miami (Fla.) Hurricanes and USC Trojans are not exactly anything new to college athletics.

Paying players will not eliminate any of the greed or determination to win at all costs that exists in today's society. Cheating will never stop, and it existed at the NCAA level well before the era of modern technology.

Henry Beach Needham outlined some fairly alarming issues college athletics faced in its early years in a 1905 piece titled “The College Athlete”, which was published in McLure’s Magazine. The biggest scandal at the time was Columbia University paying non-students to compete.

The University of Kentucky men's basketball program conspired with gamblers in the 1950s. Point-shaving plagued the NCAA during the 1970s, all the way through to the 1990s.

Southern Methodist University ran afoul of the by-laws in the 1980s, Michigan basketball vacated several victories after a scandal came to light in 2002, and the Hurricanes had some issues with Pell Grants in 1995. 

Scandals are nothing new to the NCAA, and paying players will not purify these dirty waters.

I hate seeing these improper benefits scandals as much as the next person, but if we are being honest, the history proves there will always be some form of cheating going on. Paying athletes is not going to provide a solution for these problems.

The NCAA Has More Than Enough Money to Pay Players

Although the NCAA reels in over $800 million per year, 81 percent of which comes from television and marketing-rights fees, the organization continues to be non-profit.

How is this possible? An astounding 96 percent of the revenue the NCAA brings in annually is redistributed to its members' institutions.

This is done through donations to academic enhancement, conference grants, sports sponsorships, student assistance funds and grants-in-aid. A percentage of the revenue is also added to the basketball fund, which is divided up and distributed to the NCAA tournament field on a yearly basis.

The universities themselves are not exactly rolling in wads of cash, either. Last year, only 22 athletic departments were profitable. Football and basketball bring in the dough, and every other college sport survives as a result.

Remember this year's Cinderella story in March Madness, the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles? The university nearly lost money as a result of their run to the Sweet 16.

Two years ago, the Division I Board of Directors approved a $2,000 stipend for college athletes to cover the "full cost of attendance." Less than two months later, the NCAA's member institutions repealed the stipend, because they could not afford it.

College athletics may sound like a great business, but in reality only the top-tier programs are churning out a profit.

I do not agree with everything the NCAA does. However, the evidence shows it is not the booming business everyone thinks it is.  

Is There Any Common Ground?

The pay-for-play debate will have its day in federal court in July 2014, thanks to a class-action lawsuit filed by former UCLA Bruins basketball star Ed O'Bannon.

Change may very well be on the horizon for how college athletes' likenesses can be marketed and distributed. The lawsuit is seeking a "50-50 split for telecasts and a one-third split for video games."

Despite the fact that I completely disagree with paying student-athletes, O'Bannon's case does make an outstanding point. There is no reason why EA Sports should be able to make an NCAA football or basketball game, replicate the players in every way except for their names and not pay them any money.

Television rights are a bit tricky, since the NCAA does not have a players' union. The universities would be able to make these lucrative telecast contracts no matter who comes in or out of the program for the next several years, because of how well established the conferences are.

If college athletes do wind up receiving money from the O'Bannon lawsuit, I think it should only be distributed to players who actually graduate. This is still college sports after all. 

Such an incentive would help the NCAA in its goal to improve the Academic Progress Rate for all member institutions.

In addition, "full cost of attendance" should be covered for those who can actually prove it is a necessity. Not every college athlete comes from a poor home, but the ones who do deserve a need-based stipend.

To regulate this, the NCAA will have to establish which players qualify based on their family's income. If the player’s family falls below whatever dollar amount the NCAA decides on, give them the $2,000 stipend.

O'Bannon's lawsuit will bring change to college sports, for better or worse.

For the time being, though, student-athletes are already receiving plenty of compensation from their respective universities.