College Athletes: Should They be Paid?

The question of whether or not college athletes should be paid has been a much-disputed one. There are so many aspects to this question that really it’s difficult to give a true yes or no answer. The question of payment of student athletes raises countless more questions in and of itself: how might institutions go about paying athletes? Do athletes really need payment if they are going to school on scholarship? How might one be able to put a monetary value on an athlete? These are only a few examples of things to be looked at when asking the original question. While I don’t have all the answers with me today, what I do have is a proposition, one based strongly off of Charles B. Pierce’s “Dispatches from the NCAA’s Deathbed,” as to what can and should be done about the current predicament. In my opinion, college athletes should be paid, but the payment they receive should come from outside sources rather than the academic institution they represent. In his article, Pierce looks at the battle between the NCAA and student athletes as a question of personhood, and he, as well as I, see the current state of the NCAA as one in which student athletes are treated quite unfairly.

Before beginning this argument, it should be noted that in this case, not all athletes would be receiving some sort of payment. While the Heisman winners and Naismith recipients would be well off, the unrecognized pole-vaulters would be in relatively the same state that they are today. This is out of no disrespect for athletes in lesser-known sports; it is simply a proposal that tries to appeal both to those who wish for athletes to be paid and to those who believe amateurism should be kept in tact when it comes to college athletics.

When delving into this argument, it would first be beneficial to look at some statistics that show just how popular college sports, particularly football and basketball, truly are. First, according to a 2014 Harris poll, college football and basketball are the third and seventh most-popular sports in America, respectively. Some sports less popular than college football include the NBA, auto racing, and the NHL. In these sports, top players can earn very large sums of money via advertising: in 2013, Kobe Bryant made $32 million in advertising; in 2012, Dale Earhart Jr. made $24 million dollars in endorsements; and in 2012, Sydney Crosby made $4 million dollars from advertising. If top players from leagues less popular than college football and only just more popular than college basketball are earning millions of dollars outside of the playing field, then why cannot college athletes?

In my proposal, I like to compare college athletes to Olympians. In the Olympics, pride is taken in the fact that the athletes remain amateurs. Though, while they are not paid for their actual performance, they can still generate income from outside sources. Case in point, in 2012, Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt made $23 million dollars from endorsements. This is just another example of how, though they do not need to be paid on the field, college athletes should still have the benefit to cash in on their performance off the field.

Some texts that support this proposition are the aforementioned “Dispatches from the NCAA’s Deathbed” and Homer’s Iliad. As mentioned before, Pierce believes that athletes should be paid, especially from outside sources. A key quote from his piece that I found to be of interest was when acting judge in the court case regarding paying student athletes, Claudia Wilken, asked economist James Heckman, who was arguing against payment of athletes, “are you saying that being paid for your name, image, and likeness is the same as being paid for the activity itself?” This quote really shows the difference between being paid for the actual sport and being paid for your image. While the NCAA might not like the idea of paying athletes for their activity, they have no right to deny students the opportunity to make money off of their brand.

Also, when looking at Homer’s Iliad, one can see a similarity in the way that the athletes in the NCAA and competitors in the funeral games want to be properly compensated for their accomplishments. In the funeral games, there is a chariot-race portion. In this portion, Antilochus finishes second, but Achilles wants to award the second-place prize to Diomedes, for Diomedes should have finished better. Antilochus protested this as he earned the right to the second-place prize, and he wanted proper compensation. This compares to NCAA athletes, as some have accomplished much, and they are looking for compensation themselves, and as shown throughout this blog, that compensation does not necessarily have to come from on-field performance.

There are some rebuttals to the points I have made, a strong one being that these top-tier athletes do not need the endorsement deal, for they are destined to go on to the professional ranks and have lucrative careers. Though this is true for some, this is not always the case. Look at Troy Smith of Ohio State. He won the Heisman in 2006 but was only a fifth-round draft pick. While he made some money in the NFL, Smith missed out on a lot of potential earnings while he was at the center of attention in his college days. Not paying someone in college because they are bound to go on to the pros is unfair. It would compare to someone not being paid for their first job just because they are “destined” for bigger things in the future.

Former Heisman winner, Troy Smith, never really found his way in the NFL.

Overall, it should be quite clear that college athletes, at least the ones that generate their own revenue, deserve to be compensated. While there are certainly many kinks in the system to be worked out, the overarching theme is clear, and no longer should athletes be stripped of what is rightfully theirs.