According to the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), no enrolled or perspective athlete may receive benefits other than a basic athletic scholarship, which covers tuition, room, and board. The athlete gets for free what every other student (that isn’t on a scholarship) has to pay for. The NCAA has set guidelines, rules, and restrictions on the benefits that a student-athlete can receive. In short, anything outside of the standard athletic scholarship is a violation. Many colleges and players ignore these rules and commit the violations anyways. Over the years there have been many cases of athletes having cars, houses, loans, and trips paid for people associated with various universities such as coaches, boosters, future agents, and overzealous fans. There are four groups of people at fault here: the athletes, the schools, the NCAA, and the culture surrounding professional athletics.
The athletes are the most important dynamic in this issue - without them there would not even be a conflict. The sports they play, however, might be infinitely more important than the specific players themselves. There is a definite distinction between what is considered “revenue” and “non-revenue” sports. A revenue sport is a sport that directly makes the schools money through ticket and merchandise sales. Across the nation, football and men’s basketball are revenue sports, along with hockey at most northern schools that have teams, and baseball at most southern schools that field teams. Additionally, some schools have great traditions within smaller sports, and these programs also bring money into the schools. Examples would include gymnastics at the University of Georgia, women’s volleyball at Penn State, and wrestling at Iowa and Oklahoma State. Other than these unique cases, all other sports are considered non-revenue. The funding that goes towards these programs is being supported through donations and profit made by the school’s other more successful and profitable programs. This would include sports like golf, tennis, swimming, and track. The non-revenue sports, as the name would suggest, don’t generate any profit through ticket sales, and barely any through merchandise. These sports are important, because they make up the vast majority of college athletes. Subsequently, this has developed a two-tiered system at nearly every athletically oriented school in the country. Regardless of the sport or level, the athletes are putting in serious work and time in order to become the best at their discipline. While all these athletes are working hard, the distinction between revenue and non-revenue stretches to the individual athletes themselves. Some of these athletes are helping their schools make huge amounts of money off them and their sport, but the vast majority of collegiate athletes end up costing the school thousands of dollars apiece.
There is a high level of hypocrisy in many top schools: they market and sell merchandise with a player’s number or name on it, and that player gets absolutely nothing while the university gets millions in profit. Personally, I can remember going to an University of Michigan football game and seeing thousands of fans walking around with “16” on jerseys and shirts. Of course, they were doing this because the starting quarterback for Michigan at that time was a young man named Denard Robinson. No other notable Michigan athlete had ever worn the number 16. Robinson, with his flashy and exciting style of play had made that number famous, and had quickly become a fan favorite. None of the jerseys had the name “Robinson” on the back, as it is NCAA policy for no merchandise to be sold with a player’s name on it. But there was no coincidence that Robinson had made the number 16 famous. These fans were not wearing 16 because some middling backup wide receiver in the 1980s had worn it. It was because of Denard Robinson, and he wasn’t earning a single cent from this. Another former Michigan Wolverine, basketball player and future NBA star Chris Webber attended Michigan in the early 1990s. He was part of a core group of five incredibly talented freshmen that were called the “Fab 5” by the media. The Fab 5 would reach two NCAA finals in the two years that all five were on campus. The Fab 5 revolutionized the game by being the first ones to wear baggy shorts and black socks during games. Chris Webber recalls one time he saw a storefront that was offering $80 for specialty shoes with Michigan colors and “Fab 5” written on it. Meanwhile, he could barely afford the coat on his back, while his parents struggled to support their family. It was no surprise that Webber would turn pro leave for the National Basketball Association (NBA) and a hefty paycheck after his sophomore year. This same scene is reenacted on campuses across the nation every single day – schools using the talents of young men to make millions of dollars without giving them a cut.
Like most issues, money is the obviously driving factor here. Aside from maybe having a job in their free time or offseason, these athletes don’t have any personal income coming in. If they are at their sport’s highest level, they have no time for an outside job, because their job every single day of the week is working to become a better player. As it turns out, even when on a full ride, college life is not free for athletes. According to a Drexel University study the average athlete on a full ride owes about $3,200 from his or her own pocket per year. That translates to about $13,000 for four years, more if the athlete is in school for five or six years due to injury or other circumstances. For many families this is still quite a financial burden, but that is not the end of it. That same Drexel study did an analysis of what Division 1 revenue sport athletes would be worth on the open market. They came to a conclusion that each athlete in a major sport is worth over $100,000 per year. For football, each player is worth about $121,000 per year, for basketball, it’s over $265,000 per year. For example, a Duke basketball player is worth over a million dollars per year to school when all factors are considered. Most, if not all, of that money is going back to the university, while the player doesn’t even have all of his incidental school expenses covered. Some say that we have to treat these kids just like regular students. However, the average, regular, suffering-through-chemistry-101 student isn’t making his or her school any money!
The full spectrum of the role of money in college athletics wouldn’t be complete without something on the NCAA. On the surface it appears that they either over or under step their boundaries on countless issues, all while wasting an incredible amount of money in the process. However, the NCAA has an incredibly tough job as the governing body for all college athletics, and they have decided to use their power to limit the recruiting process, set regulations, and make life more difficult for potential athletes. Their money and resources would be much better served if they were directed towards compliance and making sure student-athletes across the country were making the grades necessary in order to keep their scholarships. But the NCAA can only do so much. They have to leave a majority of the regulating up the schools, who sadly are the ones taking advantage of the NCAA.
For most college athletes, playing their sport at the professional level is their dream and goal. The media makes it seem almost mockingly simple: breeze through college, sign a contract, and within months collect a huge paycheck. While that might be the case for a few individuals each year, the vast majority of college athletes do not make it to the pros. That small debt that athletes graduate with is no problem for the top players who quickly collect their paycheck, but many who were not fortunate enough to make it to the pros will struggle with that financial obligation. Something has to be done for the kids that put in work for four years, get their scholarship paid for by the university, and still graduate with debt, never play to play professional sports. This might not seem like such big a deal, but there are over 420,000 total student athletes in the country according to the NCAA. With over 100,000 graduating every year, this is a problem that must be addressed.
The social injustice is that players, coaches, and schools that are taking advantage of the NCAA and violating their rules. These rules that they are violating aren’t just about money and scholarships. There are violations committed daily where young men and women are getting their grades forged, tests taken for them, and skipping class just because they are athletes. The NCAA calls all players “student-athletes”, and they have it right – the student comes first. They are not fulfilling the “student” part of their scholarship. This fair for the regular students that are paying thousands of dollars for an education that the school is just giving back to someone not to go to class.
Taking all of this information into consideration, I think the day has finally come that we must pay college athletes for their attendance and services. It is my opinion that this is the only way to solve the problem that has become so significant in college athletics. Now, the opposing argument will say that the student-athletes have their tuition, room, and board covered, and that is enough. It is much more than the average student is getting, and if the athletes want more, than they can just go to the pros and earn a regular paycheck, or use their degree and earn a living like everyone else. While this is a valid argument, it doesn’t accurately reflect what collegiate athletics has become. The ultimate goal is to make college athletics as great and as fun as they possibly can be for everyone involved. College sports should not only be the best four years the individual players will ever have, they need to be the greatest experience for the fans as well. Everyone wants to see the best players in the country playing in college, because that sells tickets and gets people to watch on TV, thus making the schools, NCAA, and television stations money. It’s a simple win-win for everyone involved everyone except the players.
In order to get the best players to play in college, there has to be some form of compensation. There is a plan I would offer that would fix the monetary issues in college athletics and stop any need for a players union, which some people have suggested as a possible solution. In fact, football players at Northwestern University have started talks about forming a players union; but legal implications involving unionizing will eventually cause it to fail. First, the colleges would be required to pay all school or athletic-related expenses for the athletes. The college wouldn’t have to pay any personal expenses, but every aspect about college life would be covered, giving the athletes the ability to graduate debt free, if they manage their expenses properly. Secondly, the colleges and the NCAA would have to pay a portion of the profits they make directly involving specific players back to the players. The NCAA would legalize the use of athletes’ names on official apparel, and for the first time the players would get a cut of any profits made directly involving their name and play. This would not only solve many athletes’ major complaints, but it would keep them in school longer, and give many an added incentive to play and work harder. Additionally, the players would not receive their check until they leave school, and they would receive a higher percentage of the money if they graduated. The incentive to graduate is simple: if a player graduates they get a bigger cut of the money made off of their merchandise sales. Whether this causes players to stay on campus longer or graduate early is beside the point, because it still sets them up better for a career after sports or if sports don’t work out. But these added benefits need to come with hard work and effort on the part of the athletes. There will be no more cheating in college athletics, as the NCAA would focus their attention on monitoring academics. If a regular student doesn’t make grades, he is put on probation, and it would be the same way for athletes: if an athlete’s grades aren’t up the standard they should be at, they lose their cut of profits for that year, and risk losing their scholarship.
Overall this idea will help keep kids in school longer, help them graduate with good GPAs, and rightfully compensate them for the money that they are making for the university. Unfortunately, this will not happen for a long time, as the schools are the ones in the positions of power: they don’t think they are doing anything wrong, and they aren’t willing to give up more of their money to athletes. There appears to be no change soon on the horizon, and the social injustices will continue unless some types of changes are made. Until that happens, college sports will remain unbalanced, one sided, and inequitable.