The controversy regarding whether college athletes should be paid remains the topic of heated debates. At one side of the argument, there is a view that sports are a part of public education, thus there is no need to pay athletes for their participation in any sports endeavors. On the other side of the argument, proponents of the fair treatment of employees suggest that athletes give every day in their college career to training and tournaments and thus should be compensated for the time and efforts that they put into it. One of the main arguments in support of the view that student-athletes should be reimbursed for their work is linked to the high earnings that sports such as football, basketball, and baseball bring, which has been estimated to reach billions (Abdul-Jabbar, 2018). For instance, only the Texas college football team generated a profit of $92 million in 2014 (Smith, 2018). Therefore, despite the fact that college sports are showing high rates of revenue, athletes remain overlooked in regards to their contributions.
Thus, the question of whether the amount of money received by college athletes be contingent upon the amount of revenue received by college stakeholders remains unanswered. In the current paper, an analysis regarding the issue of paying college athletes will be raised, with both sides of the argument addressed. It should be noted that the amount of money that college sports coaches is disproportionate to the income of college athletes, leading to significant disparities in the distribution of rewards for the work done in the sports field.
Background and History
In order to understand the key issues associated with the payment of student-athletes, it is imperative to consider the role played by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The organization is a non-profit association committed to offering broad opportunities to up to 470,000 college athletes that dedicated their time to sports. According to the organization’s website, “a commitment to academics and success in the classroom is a vital part of the NCAA’s mission to integrate athletics into higher education” (NCAA, 2019, para. 2). In guiding issues pertinent to college sports, NCAA is responsible for controlling college sports competition in a safe, equitable, and fair way as well as integrating the principles of athletics into higher education.
Despite the positive intentions of the NCAA in regards to helping college student-athletes, there has been a significant shift in focus from education to business, which was linked to the increased popularity of college sports (Wojtys, 2016). The revenue of the organization surpassed $1 billion in 2017 based on the official financial statement (Garcia, 2018). More than $800 million of the revenue is linked to the large sums of money paid for TV rights with Turner and CBS (Garcia, 2018). In addition, in April of 2016, the NCAA signed a deal to lengthen its cooperation with television to reach $8.8 billion; the deal ends in 2032 (Garcia, 2018). However, the high revenues that the NCAA received were spent to settle court cases with former college players predominantly because the scholarships that they had received did not cover the necessary costs of attendance (Garcia, 2018). Thus, as the NCAA increases its income as an organization, it faces tremendous challenges in terms of reimbursing student-athletes whose time and efforts put into sports do not result in any financial stability.
Similar to the rising income of the NCAA, college sports also experience rises in revenue. According to Kenyon’s (2018) list of top highest-earning college sports programs, Texas Longhorns’ athletic department reported earnings of $214.8 million in 2018. However, the expenses of the department totaled $207. Million, with $64.4 spent on the coaching staff and $43.2 on facilities (Kenyon, 2018). Despite such high expenses, the Longhorns did not reimburse players for their time and effort. One of the most significant points to mention in regards to college sports refers to the high salaries of college sports coaches (Nocera, 2016). The proponents of the view that college athletes should be paid for their work are opposed to paying coaches exorbitantly. According to the findings of USA Today (2018), the salaries of college sports coaches reach millions of dollars per year. The reported 2018 payment of Alabama’s Nick Saban, who is the highest-earning coach, was $8,307,000 (USA Today, 2018). The lowest-earning college coach was Matt Viator from Louisiana-Monroe, the total revenue of whom was $390,000 in 2018 (USA Today, 2018). These high numbers suggest that college sports are a lucrative business, and the continuous focus on earnings rather than the culture of competition reinforces the unequal distribution of income among organizations or coaches and student-athletes.
Rising media revenues for covering college sports tournaments also contribute to considerations of paying student-athletes (Berri, 2016). As mentioned earlier, the NCAA works with television stations to sell tights to broadcast college sports games. According to Trefis Team (2016) for Forbes, the broadcasting revenue of Fox depends predominantly on the company’s sports programming, which incentivizes it to invest in rights to broadcast college sports tournaments. In addition, digital media companies are also considering various sources of revenue growth, including high school and colleges, sports licensing, and content deals. Online viewing is expected to overcome traditional media views and offer companies the opportunity to reach large audiences.
When it comes to student-athletes, there are high expectations for their success. However, a problem has been identified in regards to their educational achievement. In the CNN report, Ganim (2014) explored the issue of illiteracy among student-athletes, noting that despite playing in the money-making college sports, some of them cannot read well. There is a significant gap in achievement between college athletes and their peers who do not do sports, which points to the possibility of sports playing a negative role in influencing the academic capabilities of students. For example, it was found that 60% of UNC-Chapel Hill athletes read at the level of fourth- to eighth-graders while 8%-10% read below the level of third-graders (Trefis Team, 2016). The issue stems from the fact that many of the athletes are given grades for classes they cannot attend simply for their participation in college sports. Since NCAA sports is a business with millions of dollars at stake, it is in the interest of teachers to give the necessary grades to student-athletes.
In addition to the problem of academic achievement, there is an issue of boosters paying athletes illegally. Based on the standards established by the NCAA, boosters should play the role of representatives of the athletic interests of an institution and provide players with positive experiences. However, there were instances in which boosters paid university athletes despite such incentives being forbidden. According to the Sports Illustrated article by Rapaport (2018), while in college, former Texas quarterback Chris Simms was “given $100 handshakes by boosters all the time” (para. 2). Now, the athlete underlines the fact that such payments happen in any college sports and that it is stupid to overlook the issue. As mentioned by Simms, the payments were usually made by random boosters with whom athletes did not work on a regular basis. The athlete said that despite payments being illegal, they were necessary to student-athletes who had to sustain their living without a job. Simms is an advocate for the legal payment of college athletes.
It is also important to mention the graduation success rate (GSR) of college student-athletes due to its recent increases as reported by the NCAA (2018). In 2018, more Division I student-athletes are getting their degrees than ever, with the rate reaching 88%. The overall rate was positively influenced by increased GSR of black student-athletes in all sports, men’s basketball players, Football Bowl Subdivision participants, and Football Championship Subdivision participants (NCAA, 2018).
As established in the background section of the paper, college sports and the NCAA earn billions of dollars. For many years, the money has flown through colleges, with the NCAA reporting the total 2017 revenue of $1.045 billion (Kirshner, 2018). The sources of income are varied, which suggests that the organization does not pass on any opportunity to gain revenue. For instance, out of the reported billion dollars, $128,113,594 was earned through “championships and NIT tournaments,” which implies selling tickets, parking, concessions at games, merchandise, and other non-television marketing (Kirshner, 2018). However, it should be noted that the NCAA is considered as a non-profit organization, which means that it’s exempt from paying federal income taxes.
The increased interest in revenue-generating college sports is apparent when discussing amateurism since the NCAA pays an increasing amount of attention to those sports that bring the most amount of money to them (Gilleran, Katz, & Vaughn, 2013). An example of this is college swimmers collecting approximately $1,750 a month as stipends; however, the organization focuses on the corruption in college basketball and football (Dodd, 2018). This is explained by the fact that swimming is not relevant in general, with not many athletes wanting to participate. Thus, there is evident unfairness in the way student-athletes from different sports are treated: while non-revenue sports are overlooked with such issues as illegal stipends being allowed, high-revenue sports are strictly regulated to prevent athletes from accessing any kind of financial support.
The current legal processes occurring between the NCAA and college athletes also contribute to the problem. A notable case refers to the landmark decision in the O’Bannon case that concluded that the NCAA violated antitrust laws when prohibiting student-athletes from receiving compensation for the use of their likeness (Bomboy, 2014). Importantly, the court held that the compensations paid to college athletes should be capped at the cost of college attending such as tuition and other expenses. Currently, college athletes are becoming more vocal about eradicating amateurism laws and the earnings cap. However, universities are opposed to the abolishment of the pay cap because they see increased risks in student-athletes being paid. For instance, the Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison stated that the facility was interested not in professional sports but in their student-athletes. Thus, there is an increased likelihood of colleges pulling their programs of athletics.
Drafting represents another issue in the discussion of paying student-athletes as only a handful of schools in all final four appearances in the NCAA games were present. This shows that there is a distinct number of schools that dominate in most sports while others are left behind. According to Berri (2016), the restriction may is the main reason for the lack of balance in selecting athletes for professional careers. For instance, The Duke Blue Devils “won the 2015 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship with three players – Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor, and Justice Winslow—who were selected in the first twenty-four picks of the 2015 NBA draft” (p. 484). The University of Kentucky made it to the Final Four in 2015 with six players selected in the NBA draft, while out of the rest of the 351 schools that played in Division I-A basketball, 320 did not have any players selected for the NBA draft.
The argument in support of paying student-athletes is predominantly based on the fact that they spend a lot of time and effort training. The long hours of training increase the chances of their bodies being exposed to damage. Despite their love for sports and enthusiasm, many of them suffer serious injuries that may affect their careers. Importantly, the risk in which they put themselves is not countered by financial support. While there may be minor injuries such as short-term knee damage, it is also possible to suffer concussions that lead to dementia and depression (Pennington, 2008). Thus, the amount of risk and effort that student-athletes put themselves into is too much for them not to be paid. Also, there is a severe level of unfairness dominating in the field. While college team coaches are paid substantiate amounts of money for their time and contributions, the outcomes of games depend on athletes that do not receive any money. The majority of profits go not toward academics but to coaches, athletic directors, and administrators. Apart from the time and efforts put into games, student-athletes also play the role of advertising agents for their universities. For example, during big wins of college teams, it is expected that the number of admissions to that educational facility would increase.
College athletes find sports a time-consuming activity that leaves almost no time for education. Despite receiving athletic scholarships, students feel that they miss out on their lives spending on the field or on trips. According to the New York Times article, “dozens of scholarship athletes at NCAA Division I institutions said in interviews that they had underestimated how taxing and hectic their lives would be playing college sports” (Pennington, 2008, para. 6). They also mentioned that there is a prevalent misconception that student-athletes are privileged in their life. It is notable that many student-athletes love what they do and consider their practice worthwhile; however, they agree on the view that everyone else considers them ‘pampered’ while this is far from reality.
Under the NCAA amateurism rule, student-athletes are prohibited from receiving any type of financial support, including money, transportation, and any extra benefits. These include any payments from agents as well as arrangements and agreements by institutional employees or representatives of athletic institutions. Despite these provisions, multiple violations of the NCAA amateurism rule have been noted, and some of them represent how strict the rules are. Several examples of such violations were noted by Greene (2015) in the Mental Floss article. For instance, three student-athletes receive food in excess of the NCAA regulation at the banquet for their graduation. In order to be reinstated after the violation, the players were required to donate $3.83 each (which was the cost of a pasta serving) to the charity of their choice. Another example was Oregon’s self-reported NCAA violation of taking the baseball team to a meal, mini-golf, and laser tag. Such entertainment was seen as impermissible. These illustrations of NCAA incompliance show that the rules are very strict and such minor gifts as food and entertainment can also be considered unauthorized.
However, as student-athletes are put in the position of not receiving the desired financial support, many of them seek financial incentives from companies and other third parties interested in investing in players. An example of this is the Cameron Newton scandal associated with the player seeking payment from Mississippi State. It was revealed that Newton and his father were looking to receive payment from the state in exchange for their commitment (Brautigan, 2010). Despite the fact that the player should be the one to blame for the violation, the strict no-pau rule established by the NCAA should be reviewed.
In this case, if student-athletes start getting paid for their contributions to sports, the NCAA is not the one to experience the drawbacks of the change. College coaches and athletic directors will not be happy with the new professionalization because paying salaries to players will raise program expenditures without increasing revenues. If the court approves the payment of players, a small number of programs will experience an increase in competition for athletic talent because of their ability to pay athletes. In addition, it should be taken into account that new expenses will emerge, such as Medicare and Social Security federal taxes. Thus, the payments received by student-athletes will be proportionate to the revenue that a given sports team receives. It is also possible that the expenses of paying coaches will decrease to cover newly-emerged costs. In addition, the decision to pay salaries to student-athletes will question the status of college sports programs as non-profit organizations.
The issue of whether college student-athletes should be paid for their participation in sports remains controversial. There is a significant degree of unfairness in the way coaches and athletes are treated. While the salary of some of the coaches reaches millions per year, student-athletes only receive a scholarship in a best-case scenario. Therefore, there should be a reconsideration of the NCAA amateurism law as it is discriminatory to players who dedicate their time, efforts, and health to playing college sports. With the NCAA’s revenue exceeding a billion dollars, it is high time to introduce fair policies that will consider the wellbeing of players and allow them to receive money for their work. The instances of amateurism violations show that athletes may go against the law in an attempt to guarantee a prosperous future for themselves as professionals in their fields. Thus, it is strongly suggested that student-athletes should be reimbursed for their participation in college sports to avoid controversial ethical issues.
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