In Defense of Collegiate Athletics: The Case Against Paying Student-Athletes

The minute we start paying these guys is when I stop caring about college football.

What follows is an essay I wrote a couple of years ago for a class. Due to the parameters of the assignment, the structure of the essay is somewhat cumbersome. I hope, though, that the ideas presented within are still clear. Some of the ideas are not as developed as they could be which is natural any time a complex topic is undertaken within the confines of a page limit. Other ideas I have come to regard as simply ill-conceived. In particular, I'm thinking of the passage where I state that the burden of paying college athletes would prove too much for the average Athletic Department's budget. In reality, I think athletic departments could cut coaches salaries to make up the difference (something I would like to see happen regardless of whether student-athletes are paid). At any rate please keep in mind that this was an assignment written some time ago and was not intended to be all-encompassing in its scope. So without further ado I present for your reading pleasure, In Defense of Collegiate Athletics: The Case Against Paying Student-Athletes.

In recent years collegiate athletics has come under increasing scrutiny for the perceived double standard under which it operates. No one can deny that athletic departments across the US bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year. However, that little of this revenue is distributed among the athletes who participate in the sports attracts cries of foul play from collegiate athletics' detractors. They and their ilk regard the National Collegiate Athletic Association's (NCAA) notion of amateurism as impractical, immaterial, and in some cases, immoral. They see the large sums of money exchanging hands above the play of student-athletes and question how it can be that a coach may be paid millions of dollars while the players who toil sisyphusly receive little more than an education and a pat on the back. To them, collegiate athletics is a sham of highest proportions - an indecent weight cast upon today's athletic youth for the purposes of exploitation to the highest degree.

And yet, college athletics persists - as does the notion of amateurism. Thus, it is my intention to provide philosophical and factual rebuttal to those who would forsake the current system of collegiate athletics for something so resembling professional athletics as to hardly be distinct from it.

Statement of Problem:

Whittled down to its core, the issue of paying collegiate athletes leaves two questions: Is it possible for student-athletes to be true amateurs in today's athletics climate, and is the current compensation for collegiate athletes adequate? I hope to explore these questions in detail throughout this article. Additionally, this article seeks to provide a voice in favor of the current system of collegiate athletics when it seems that the vast majority of pundits are ready to tear it down. One would assume that the large chasm that exists between the number of public proponents and detractors suggests that the current system is ripe for change. On the contrary, the author of this text holds that detractors of the current system are simply more vocal in their critiques than proponents.  Evidence of this can be found in the small amount of public support which the movement to pay collegiate athletes has garnered.

Significance of Problem:

The effect that paying college athletes would have on collegiate athletics cannot be over-stated. Due in large part to the co-mingling of private and public funds in much of the collegiate athletics world, moving from an amateur framework to a professional one would require a major overhaul of almost all aspects of collegiate athletics. Once student-athletes begin to receive pay checks from their universities, the emphasis moves at once from student to athlete. While some would argue the state of collegiate athletics has already crossed that boundary, paying student-athletes would surly act a tipping point. University sponsored athletics would have few ties left to their academic institutions, save a namesake and color scheme.

Indeed, once collegiate athletics is treated as a pure business, questions arise where there once were none. In the corporate world excess fat is soon trimmed. Non-revenue producing sports, which the NCAA has long championed, might find themselves on the budgetary chopping block. Non-revenue producing noble causes such as training America's Olympic-caliber athletes would find little room in the world of strict professionalism, especially when such endeavors come with significant additions to the expense report.

Potential implications for Title IX are equally ominous. As Title IX applies to collegiate athletics because of the public funds which athletic programs receive, a shift away from the security of public subsidization puts athletic scholarships for women at particular risk. A disproportionate number of revenue-producing scholarships are awarded to men as opposed to women, the popularity of men's football and basketball being the main reasons. One does not have to stretch the imagination too far to envision a scenario in which athletic departments must cut costs, and by so doing, disproportionally eliminate women's scholarships. This is, of course, assuming that collegiate athletics still maintains its current ties to academics after a paradigm shift toward professionalism. Nor would one be hard pressed to envision a system of collegiate athletics wholly separate from the academic world once a pay-for-play mentality sets in. In such a scenario athletic departments would be little more than a peripheral organization of the university, leasing a brand and logo for broader public appeal. These issues and many more will be explored in the text to follow.

I. History of the NCAA:

Detractors of the NCAA point to the large sums of money that it brings in through its television contracts and label it hypocrisy. They point out the inherent inequity of an organization that does not permit its members to receive proper compensation for their craft while it, in turn, reaps an average yearly revenue of $545 million per year from its championship contract with CBS alone (Renfro, 1999). However, in their ire for what they perceive as inequity within the system, the NCAA's detractors conveniently forget the mission of the NCAA: to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount (Our Mission, 2008).

Indeed, the NCAA was first founded to reign in the brutality involved in college football. After a particularly brutal 1905 season in which 18 collegiate football players died and another 149 sustained serious injuries, then president Theodore Roosevelt called the presidents of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to the White House to discuss the matter. Famously, he told the heads of the "Big Three" college football universities that they must either "reform or abolish" the sport. However, it was not until another death of a player on NYU's squad later that year that momentum for the establishment of the NCAA began in earnest. Shortly thereafter the organization succeeded in implementing regulations, like the abolishment of the popular but deadly "mass" play, in collegiate athletics' most popular sport (Crowley, 2006, pp. 42-44).

Of course, I have so far neglected those monetary contributions of the NCAA which are enjoyed directly by the student-athlete. The NCAA currently operates a special assistance fund with an annual budget in excess of $10 million. From 1997-1998, over 20,000 student-athletes accessed this found for purposes ranging from emergency travel home to clothing and supplies for classes. Each year, the NCAA also distributes a total of $15.85 million to all Division I colleges and universities through its Academic Enrichment Fund. Each school receives $50,000 annually which is allocated specifically for academic support services. The NCAA also sponsors a host of other programs that include minority and women's enrichment scholarships, drug- testing and education programs, youth education sports clinics, and degree completion programs. All told, the NCAA doled out an estimated $151 million in financial contributions to member institutions in the 1999-2000 academic year (Renfro, 1999).

What is more, the funds that the NCAA does receive are funneled in large part back to the student-athletes, if not directly so. That money pays the bills for the administrators and organizers of the NCAA staff whose primary mission is to foster the best interests of today's average student-athletes. These are not the overpaid barons of a monopolized industry. Rather, they are more akin to the public servants whose work and achievements often go unnoticed if not outright spurned. Moreover, their salaries are commensurate with such. To be sure, there is no dearth of money being funneled into the NCAA, with some salaries perhaps climbing into the millions. However, collegiate athletics is a passionate endeavor with a passionate following. Policing such an institution requires the collective efforts of dedicated individuals, who in turn require adequate compensation for their services. As former Chancellor Samuel Black McCormick of Pittsburgh said of collegiate athletics, "[it is] the most natural thing in the world that the young man should permit his enthusiasm for sport to carry him too far and that college alumni in their zeal for their college should do things which are neither wise nor good." Thus, the NCAA was born into the role of caretaker over not only the future of collegiate sport, but of the well-being of every student-athlete hereafter (Crowley, 2006, p. 59).

II. Amateurism:

The current model for collegiate sport in America was born out of the imperfect marriage of America's institutions for higher learning with America's zeal for athletic competition. The arrangement gradually came about as the notion cemented itself that while exceedingly popular, athletics should not be the primary focus of an academic institution. However, the market forces at work behind the ever-growing popularity of collegiate athletics conspire to undermine that very notion. Thus, America's universities are faced with the regulation of an entity that runs tangent to its primary objectives. Still, collegiate athletics cannot simply be forsaken by the universities that spawned its formation. For all the controversy surrounding it, collegiate athletics provides access to a top-flight education for thousands of America's youth. Its sports and players provide rallying points that strengthen communities and deepen their meaning to the members of those very same communities.

            For such a model, amateurism is the most appropriate framework. Rather than the exploitive system for which it is so often characterized, collegiate athletics should be regarded as a windfall opportunity for America's youth. Playing college sports allows students an additional avenue to secure a college education. Those students who cannot otherwise afford to enroll in college, or whose scholastic achievements would not merit financial aid under other circumstances, may use their natural athletic abilities to further their education. It is for this reason that athletes are given grants-in-aid commensurate with the academic scholarships that are given out for scholastic accomplishment. Scholarships (and by extension the NCAA's grants-in-aid to student-athletes) are designed to reward merit in areas of exceptional ability.

In academics, as in sport, a college or university benefits from the augmentation of its talent pool through such gifts. It is in the school's best interest to fill its ranks with the most talented artists, the most enlightened thinkers, and the most gifted athletes. In so doing, a school can enrich the educational experience it offers to its students through increasing the diversity of talent within its walls. The act of giving a scholarship is transparent. The idea behind such a gesture is simply the recognition of unusual ability. So the history of the scholarship is rooted not in mere compensation, but rather opportunity.

It follows naturally that athletic scholarships should be characterized similarly. The gift of an athletic scholarship is meant to make attendance at an institution of higher learning possible by lessening the burden of tuition. It is not, as some would argue, pure compensation for the athlete's services. Indeed, a scholarship worth $10-40,000 pales in comparison to the going salary of a star caliber professional athlete, often in excess of $1 million (Zimblast, 1999, p. 19). It is precisely because of this disparity in compensation that the current restrictions are in place. In order to keep athletics from superseding academics across the board on America's campuses, the NCAA is forced to limit the compensation a student-athlete can receive. This fear was apparent when former Harvard president Charles Elliot made this statement: "Colleges are presenting themselves to the public, educated and uneducated alike, as places of mere physical sport and not as educational training institutions (Fizel and Fort, 2004, p. 36)."

Because of the sizeable difference between a student-athlete's actual compensation and the going rate for his professional services, a black market of sorts has developed within the collegiate sports world. Sometimes this market is evidenced when boosters pay recruits, when athletes are involved in point-shaving schemes, or any number of other activities that directly conflict with NCAA policy. Critics point out that in a free market system where athletes are paid the going rate for their services, such problems would not be present (Farrey, 2003). However, such an argument is poor reasoning for abandoning the NCAA's current amateur system in favor of strict professionalism.

The reality it is that such problems exist even in the highly compensated world of professional sports. One need look no further than Major League Baseball's ongoing struggle to control steroid usage to realize that increasing collegiate athlete's  compensation is not a fix-all to the inherent dilemmas in sport. It is not likely that paying a few collegiate athletes salaries so far beyond what the average dishonest booster would be willing to pay under the table will eliminate the practice. Indeed, it is more likely that dishonest boosters will find more freedom to conduct their activities in a system that promotes the outright payment of athletes. Dishonest boosters are likely to refocus their efforts on those lesser talented players who would not receive the large payments of star-caliber players.

Of course pundits may respond that there is no wrong-doing on the part of the booster in a free-market system. However this line of thought neglects the current parameters of the collegiate sports landscape. In professional leagues, rules exist to promote the competitive balance, and thus the overall health of the league. In college sports no such rules exist. There are no drafts based on the reverse order in which the teams finished the year prior. There is no revenue re-distribution from the large market teams to the small market teams. There is no expansion draft for new teams entering the league. A move to a free market talent pool would upset a collegiate sports landscape that has no regulations in place to control competitive balance. In its current state, a move to a free market player pool in college sports would deny smaller schools, already having trouble competing, any chance of meaningful competition with the larger schools. In terms of recruiting, the promise of a top flight education would have little value over a fat signing bonus to prospective student-athletes, one of the last advantages that many smaller schools now possess over their larger counterparts.

This, of course, runs counter to the NCAA's mission of involving the most student-athletes possible in inter-collegiate athletics. Schools that are no longer even casually competitive are sure to drop their athletic programs. This, again, begs the question, "Why is this wrong?" In a free market system, there are sure to be winners and losers. As is only the case in collegiate athletics, the losers here would be the majority of the student-athletes, as only a slim portion would receive the top payout. There is also a strong likelihood that athletes of none revenue sports will see their programs cut, further reducing the scholarship pool for America's youth. With the current system, the revenue producing sports of football, men's basketball, and occasionally women's basketball or baseball, provide funds for their non-revenue producing counterparts. With a shift toward strict professionalism, such an arrangement is prohibitive.

On the other hand, even a tweaked version of Amateurism allows for the inclusion of hundreds more student-athletes than a tweaked version of professionalism. Excess revenue can be skimmed off the top to cover the cost of traditionally non-revenue producing sports. It may seem unfair that football and basketball players must carry entire athletic departments on their backs. Then again, they are also the ones who receive greatest facilities, the most adulation, and, in the case of football, the largest number of scholarships.

 

III. Stipends: 

Some argue that tweaking amateurism should involve the introduction of stipends into collegiate athletics. The state legislature of Nebraska, in fact, introduced a bill proposing just that in 2003. Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers, who sponsored the bill, thinks that Nebraska's football players should be compensated at a rate equal to the Federal minimum wage so that they may have some "spending money." However, this notion produces a host of problems (Farrey, 2003).

            To illustrate how such an arrangement would affect a typical university, figures from a prominent university's athletic department (referred to hereafter as The University) will be used in the following examples. First, proponents of stipends argue that since college football and basketball players generate so much revenue for their university, they should see some benefit from their work in the form of weekly or monthly stipends. Following the 2003 Nebraska bill, members of the football team were to be paid the federal minimum wage for an average of about 14 hours a week, or 728 hours a year (Fareey, 2003). Acknowledging that all football players, not just the scholarship athletes, contribute to the health of the program, the Nebraska bill states that all members of the squad, including walk-ons, are to be compensated equally. In the case of The University, this would have translated into approximately $587,714 in additional expenditures for the 2007-08 fiscal year (Federal minimum wage at $5.85 x 728 hours x 138 athletes on football squad) (Labor Law Center, 2008).

            However, surly the spirit of the Nebraska bill dictates that all student athletes whose talents contribute to the coffers of the athletic department should, in turn, be similarly compensated in their efforts. In the case of The University, this extends the additional cost to approximately $647,338 when men's basketball is included (Federal minimum wage at $5.85 x 728 hours x 152 athletes on football and men's basketball squads.).

In this scenario student-athletes now are being compensated according to an adjusted free market system. Their wages may be fixed, but the fact that only the revenue generating student-athletes receive the stipend makes this essentially a regulated free market industry. However, collegiate athletics operates under additional regulations, including Title IX - which dictates that:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance (US Department of Justice).

The above scenario creates an immediate Title IX dilemma. As student-athletes receive grants-in-aid as compensation for their abilities, athletics represents an opportunity for higher education. By extension, the courts of the United States would likely find that female athletes deserve the same compensation as male athletes even in the face of their sports' revenue generating disparities. Likewise, non-revenue generating male athletes would hold that they, too, deserve the same treatment as the non-revenue generating female athletes. Thus, it is clear that if one group of athletes is to receive a stipend, so must they all.

Paying all student-athletes a stipend of the variety described above would have a significant impact on the finances for The University. During the 2007-08 fiscal year alone, stipends would account for an additional $2,406,222 in expenditures ($5.85/hour x 728 hours x 565 student-athletes). This number reflects the Federal minimum wage for 2007. Just two short years later, though, when the Federal minimum wage has reached the end of its gradual increase in 2009, the same number of student-athletes would require an aggregate stipend amount of $2,982,070 ($7.25/hour x 728 x 565 student-athletes) (The University (b)).

Given this knowledge, one may reasonably ask, then, how this impacts the budget of The University's athletic department. Like almost all sport entities, collegiate athletic departments operate on an extremely thin profit margin. Most minor league sport entities turn somewhere between zero and $3 million in net profit annually. Collegiate athletics programs are even more frugal, with few turning any profit to speak of. For the 2006-07 fiscal year, The University athletic department raised a total of $60,590,934 in revenue. However, The University also incurred $57,213,817 in expenses the same year. The result is a net profit of $3,377,117 for fiscal year 2006-07.

It might be tempting to suggest that this sum could easily cover the additional cost of the stipends, until one looks at the situation with a finer lens. The reality is that these profits do not represent excess revenue that can be divvied among the department's employees as the year's bonuses. To the contrary, these funds are sunk directly back into operation of running the athletic department, and by extension, the student-athletes who it serves. Excess revenue from any given year is used to service The University's debt, build a hedge fund against future losses, or any number of other projects that ensure the well-being of the department (The University (b)).

The reality in collegiate athletics is that fortunes can change significantly in a short amount of time. Operating on such a thin margin of error presents serious concerns when asking an athletic department to shoulder an additional $3 million in expenses a year. What is more, The University is notably better off than the majority of collegiate athletic programs in the country. All but about two dozen fail to turn a profit, relying instead on their respective state governments to cover the difference (Winkeljohn, 2008). In light of these issues, paying student-athletes may turn out to be too burdensome for collegiate athletics to endure.

IV. Conclusion:

With all this talk of the business of collegiate athletics the value of the athletic department sometimes gets pushed aside. By regarding collegiate athletics as a strict business, detractors of the current system in place fail to notice the delineations that set it apart from ordinary business endeavors. Business, being the capitalist manifestation of self interest, harbors no real consideration for the goodwill and compassion that collegiate athletics promotes. However cynical one may be about collegiate athletics, the fact remains that the system still manages to pay for thousands of grants-in-aid so that America's youth may complete college degrees. The author of this paper finds it not so much ironic as sad that proponents of the free-market pay-for-play framework would do their constituents more harm than good. As Georgia Tech basketball coach Paul Hewitt puts it:

Few players truly move the needle in terms of attendance, TV ratings, or merchandising, but it would be like the free agency system in baseball; you'd get a few guys making a lot of money, and others fighting their way onto campus. I think in the long run, the majority of student athletes would lose in that type of market. The idea is to provide educational opportunities for a lot of kids who could not afford one. I would hate to treat the few and leave out the many. If we pay these kids, the ones that are truly moving the needle would get more. In that scenario a lot of kids would have the doors of higher education closed to them. This [system] has helped an awful lot of kids change their lives, and their families' lives (Winkeljohn, 2008).

            Athletics manages not just to bring students to America's college campuses from all walks of life, but also provide for them. Athletics allows for the admission of students to college who normally might not have neither the ability nor the drive to seek out a degree. Furthermore, once on campus, student-athletes have a host of services available to them to facilitate their success. These include personal tutors, access to computers, and even nutritionists.

            And what of the notion that student-athletes are entitled to a stipend in addition to their grant-in-aid for the purposes of "spending money?" Such a strategy for reimbursement would be difficult to implement, to be sure. However, difficulty has never been an acceptable justification for inaction. In addition to the issues raised about the practicality of implementing a stipend system in collegiate athletics, this author takes philosophical issue with the concept. It is often stated that student-athletes are entitled to a greater portion of the revenue in collegiate athletics since it is the sweat off their backs which promotes the institution. However, the popularity that collegiate athletics enjoys is a function of America's thirst for sport coupled with its reverence for its academic establishments. In collegiate sport, more so than in the professional realm, it is the colors which the players wear, not the players themselves, that inspire such enthusiastic dedication among fans. One must wonder, what is a collegiate athlete without his uniform? Certainly the collegiate athlete is more than mere flesh and bone, skill and prowess, crammed into a helmet and pads. The student-athlete who transcends the playing field does so only through the history and prestige that his alma mater sees fit to lay upon his shoulders. To ignore this is to acknowledge the string of misfortunes that is certain to befall the next generation of student-athletes, echoing loudly of the tragedy of Maurice Clarett for many years to come. 

            In the end, no one can fault the advocates for change within the current system of collegiate athletics. However misguided their efforts may be, they seek only to aid a group of people who they see as given less than their fair share. To be sure, the system in place is not a perfect one. Subsequent years will more than likely see the further tweaking of the collegiate athletic framework. Still, professionalism is not the answer. Collegiate athletics' value extends far beyond the reaches of sport. The opportunities for education that it provides to America's youth should not be taken for granted. Care must be taken in the future not only to look after the well-being of America's collegiate student-athletes, but also the system in which they are allowed to prosper.

Works Cited

 

1. Crowley, J.N. (2006). In the Arena: The NCAA's First Century. Indianapolis, IN: The NCAA.

2. Farrey, T. (2003). Is Minimum Wage too Much to Pay Players?. ESPN.com, Retrieved July2, 2008, from http://espn.go.com/ncf/columns/farrey_tom/1509049.html

3. Fizel, J., & Fort, R. (2004). Economics of College Sport. Westport, CT: Praeger.

4. Labor Law Center. Federal Minimum Wage Increase for 2007. Retrieved July 28, 2008, from http://www.laborlawcenter.com/federal-minimum-wage.as.

5. Nebraska Proposal to Pay College Athletes Stirs Issue. (2003, February, 21).  USA Today, Retrieved July 2, 2008, from https://pallas2.tcl.sc.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=J0E400332389803&site=ehost-live

6. Our Mission. Retrieved July 18, 2008, from NCAA Web site: http://www2.ncaa.org/portal/about_ncaa/overview/mission.html

7.  Renfro, W.I. (1999, November, 19). NCAA Reaches Rights agreement with CBS Sports. NCAA News Release, Retrieved July 18, 2008, from http://www.ncaa.org/releases/champother/1999/1999111801co.htm

8. The University (a). Cost to Field a Student Athletes 2007-08.

9. The University (b). Report on Audit of Financial Statements: for the year ended June 30, 2007.

10. US Department of Justice. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Retrieved July 28, 2008, from http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/cor/coord/titleixstat.htm.

11. Winkeljohn, M. (2008, July 2). Advocates, NCAA take sides on paying student-athletes. The Atlanta Journal Constitution. Retrieved July 28, 2008, from http://www.ajc.com/sports/content/sports/stories/2008/07/26/student_athletes_pay.html.

12. Zimblast, A. (1999). Unpaid Professionals. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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