Paying College Athletes

UPDATE My son may have changed my mind about this. He has clearly thought about it a good deal. In the comments

I don’t care so much about the issue – it affects me not in the least. But I care about logic, and there is plenty of faulty reasoning going on about the issue.

The athletes for the two major sports, football and men’s basketball at big schools get given much of value.  Twenty-year-olds don’t always understand much about value, however. They are given excellent room and board.  The recent stories of basketball players complaining they didn’t have enough for meals in college reveals that they sold meal tickets because they wanted the cash.  They are offered plenty of food.  They receive excellent medical care.  Because their health is one of the main things the school is interested in, the school makes sure they get MRIs and other diagnostic tests, proper medication, diagnoses and treatment even for injuries and conditions they did not acquire on the playing fields. You have to be quite wealthy to get better medical care. I fully admit that their risks are higher. Nonetheless, it’s very good care.

They have a built in social life, plus a significant leg up in status on campus.  Not that everyone loves athletes, but plenty do admire them and want to be with them. They also have a network to draw on for future jobs, if they choose to use it.  There are plenty of alums who like to know people on the team and are glad to invite them places. They have businesses and know others who do too. These aren’t a guarantee, but they are an advantage.

I haven’t even mentioned the education yet, have I?  That’s actually more of a mixed bag. Not all these athletes can benefit much from it.  They get some benefit from acquiring credits or even a degree even if they are clueless, but most of that is temporary.  People will find out soon enough they were carried through.  Still, they are likely to pick up something, and demonstrating that you can at least show up regularly has value to employers. But some sportswriters overvalue the education given.  Yes, it was a great gift to you, who could not have afforded it otherwise, but not everyone can avail themselves of it.

Value isn’t enough for some of the athletes. There is one creditable reason for this and one immature one.  The good reason is that it feels strange and unfair for them to live in comfort while their families back home are still poor. They may get great medical care, but it’s their younger sister who needs it more. It must feel strange to eat well when you know that Mom and the siblings are not.

The bad reason is that what they really want is spending money, to show off, to live large. That’s not unusual in a 20-year-old, but it doesn’t mean we have to regard it as a legitimate complaint.

The next set of problems is a false belief of how much they are going to make.  The athletes and their advocates claim that the school makes money off their image, which they should be entitled to some of. No, that’s pretty generic.  If you weren’t there in the team picture someone else would be, Jason. It’s the school who makes you money, if you end up going pro. They gave you the launching pad.  At the beginning of last season, Zion Williamson was one of 3-4 players viewed as about equal.  Had all of them gone directly to the pros, he would not have been as big a deal nor commanded as much money and a shoe contract.  Getting the chance to show he was better at Duke got him drafted #1.  Autographs?  Please.  How many other than Zion could have sold autographs last year? The same goes for shirts, balls, wristbands.  There isn’t the market for college players they think there is.

The feeling that the athletes should be paid comes from something else.  Because some other people make money, and they are involved in the process, people feel some money should flow to the athlete. It just feels more fair.  But as above, it isn’t the athlete who is bringing most of the value to the equation, it’s the school.  It’s what’s on the front of the shirt, not the back. Yes, it does help when a smaller school gets a star or a collection of semi-stars and gets into the national spotlight for a year or two.  In those situations, the athlete is providing some value added.  But not much. That can only happen on a foundation of already-existing value.

The best college players are already convinced that their real peer group is the pros, who make a lot of money.  Yet that is only half-true.  Only half of them are going to succeed and make a lot of money in the pros.  Their college teammates, having come that close to glory, believe they are just one tick less worthy than that, and hence worth a lot of money as well.  As I have said before about sports, no one of them has any intrinsic value. Make the basketball a little bigger, make the strike zone a little lower, make the football field a little smaller – or change a few rules in any sport – and different players will succeed. Tennis is arbitrary. Being almost as good but not having any entertainment or teaching value is worth no money at all.

I understand that it feels bad.  Football players show up to school early, put in a lot of effort, injure themselves, work hard, and it feels like they should be compensated for that.  They are, just not in spending money.

27 thoughts on “Paying College Athletes”

  1. I don’t care much about sports (I know passion – my husband bleeds maroon & my family are fanatically red), but Tom Osborne thought they should be paid. Surely practice cut into their schedules as much as our work/study jobs did. They got freebies – movies, dinners, sometimes good deals on cars, etc. But that is not the most effective way to teach teenagers to budget. Then, many came from immigrant towns in mining areas of Pennsylvania – it made them sturdy but their families were poor. And I certainly think that an excellent player should make more than an average one. Still this kind of pay seems to be so arbitrary that it might lead to tension among the new recruits because of the singling out (perhaps before the coach has brought each up to his standard for them). I don’t know enough about betting, but these rewards, being more random, might be more tempting. Perhaps I’m wrong. I’m curious about others’ opinions. I’m not going to accept the value of a higher education in training the mind. I taught athletes in a course that should have been 2nd year, 2nd semester. That was in the 70’s at Austin. I doubt much has improved.

  2. Of all the ways the left has destroyed the media in the last few decades, the destruction of sports media is the most tragic. Most sportswriters at this point seem to be frustrated wannabe political writers, who mostly loathe sports fans and often seem to hate the sports they write about. So it’s hard to try to figure out what’s really going on in a case like this, when most coverage seems to be slanted politically, and not really cover the substance.
    As far as I can tell, the CA bill allows athletes to appear in endorsement ads and get paid for other ways they sell their own likeness. I believe it was inspired by the case of Ed O’Bannon at UCLA, who sued the NCAA because of using his likeness in a video game. It’s not about paying athletes a stipend or anything like that. You can see why CA would pass it, because someone in LA or SF is going to be able to get paid way, way, way more than anyone pretty much anywhere else. Of course, it would only really benefit a very few number of players, and let’s be honest, those few guys are getting paid under the table right now anyway.
    What I don’t understand is how the CA legislature has any jurisdiction here. The USC QB can appear in an ad right now. Nothing is stopping him. He’ll just immediately become ineligible to play in NCAA games anymore, and other amateur organizations as well. The NCAA is a nationwide voluntary organization of colleges. It makes up its own rules, they aren’t set by state law. So if the USC QB is banned by the NCAA, is he going to then sue in federal court because CA law says he can do something, and the NCAA says he can’t? How is that possibly a judicable issue? And if colleges elsewhere, who want to follow the current rules, refuse to play CA schools, and the NCAA collapses, then what? Is CA going to sue them for that too?

  3. “And if colleges elsewhere, who want to follow the current rules, refuse to play CA schools, and the NCAA collapses, then what?” Barry Alvarez, the University of Wisconsin athletic director has already come out and said that they won’t schedule CA schools. Of course, what happens if they happen to get paired up with USC in March Madness? Also, Illinois is rushing to approve similar legislation. What happens to all of the Big Ten games now?

    It really is goofy as if you walked through the mall and asked a hundred people some famous college athletes, some might be able to name a couple of local stars but that’s it. So where is the value that all the rest of the athletes supposedly are going to get?

  4. Most sportswriters at this point seem to be frustrated wannabe political writers, who mostly loathe sports fans and often seem to hate the sports they write about

    Boy, is that true ! It’s not really new since Westbrook Pegler, the famous (now forgotten) opinion writer for the Chicago Tribune when it was right wing, began as a sports writer. He however, moved off the sports pages unlike the modern examples.

    When I was in college, way back in the dark ages, the USC athletes had jobs raking leaves with O&M, the campus maintenance office. It was fake and we all laughed but at least they felt it important to pretend to earn their way.

    One change since those days is that the majority of college football and basketball players are black. There are probably a higher fraction with poor families although the proverbial coal miners’ kids were mostly white. Reggie Bush wrecked the USC football program for decades because a would-be agent, still a student, bought his parents a house. USC was blamed and penalized although they had no knowledge of it.

    USC still has walk-on players that make the team and a few, like Clay Matthews, become NFL all pros. The current backup QB is a walk on with no scholarship. With tuition at $57,000, =he really wants to play.

  5. This article seems pretty detailed. It’s not remotely objective, but it seems pretty informative.
    I don’t really understand this, though:
    “When a state government passes a law asserting jurisdiction over how college athletics works, though, the NCAA can do little else besides whine and hide.”
    The NCAA, or major pieces of it, can as far as I can tell tell CA to pound sand. I don’t see why they couldn’t say that they are sticking by their rules, and any school that violates them, no matter what their own state laws say, may not participate in NCAA competition. Let CA schools start their own association, and just play each other. Of course, one suspects that the NCAA has no principles, and is just about money, but I wouldn’t necessarily rule out the SEC schools telling CA to go pound sand.

  6. What I don’t understand is how the CA legislature has any jurisdiction here.

    That’s a good question. Another good one, is why is the FBI now now enforcing NCAA rules?

    The 2017–18 NCAA Division I men’s basketball corruption scandal is an ongoing corruption scandal, initially involving sportswear manufacturer Adidas as well as several college basketball programs associated with the brand but now involving many programs not affiliated with Adidas.

    On September 27, 2017, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the office of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced the arrest of 10 individuals, including assistant coaches Anthony Bland, Chuck Person, Emanuel Richardson, and Lamont Evans and Adidas executive James Gatto, on various corruption and fraud charges including bribery, money laundering, and wire fraud. The schools implicated in the initial announcement were Arizona, Auburn, Louisville, Miami, Oklahoma State, South Carolina, and Southern California (USC)

    Three of the Adidas guys were sent to jail in March, all for less than a year. The others pleaded guilty and were fined. Once again, the Feds piled on several charges that could’ve sent the defendants away for years or decades, but the final verdict was lesser RICO-style charges of conspiracy to commit fraud and wire fraud.

    Apparently using wire fraud is the FBI’s way of asserting authority over any payment across state lines. The payment doesn’t have to violate any existing criminal statute. It only has to somehow be done in bad faith.

    The conspiracy to commit fraud charges were similar to how they got Conrad Black. The specific term is “honest services fraud”. It criminalizes any private payment that somehow offends someone else.

  7. I suspect that it’s not so much that college athletes aren’t paid that bothers people, it’s that the schools, coaches and other adults who run the show are cashing in big while the athletes are treated at best as apprentices and at worst as cash cows. The coaches et al get to negotiate their own compensation. Why shouldn’t the athletes be allowed to do the same? If athletes aren’t worth as much as they think, that fact will be revealed in salary negotiations. The reasonable suspicion, therefore, is that the athletes, especially the top athletes, are being ripped off.

  8. It’s more like one in a thousand scholarship athletes who will sign a pro contract.

    In addition, only a few college sports teams generate an operating surplus. There are fewer college sports programs that generate operating surpluses.

    A few players on a few teams in a few programs might be able to cash in on royalties from video games or the like. Ask yourself how many distance runners or fencers or all the other so-called non-revenue sports that keep the “amateur athletics” legend creditable will be cashing in, or how many basketball or football players in the mid-major conferences will.

  9. I go back and forth on this but AVI makes a good point in regard to where the money is really being generated. It’s largely the laundry. Two examples come to mind. My home state schools University of Iowa and Iowa State are at best mid-league prograns in the Big 10 and Big 12. They neither attract nor generate star players though both are reasonably productive. They routinely sell out their games largely on the strength of school spirit, nothing more.

    The other example is minor league baseball. Those players barely make ends meet and often need supplemental income from other jobs. I think that’s illustrative of ehat would happen if the NCAA went full on pay gor playing.

  10. “In addition, only a few college sports teams generate an operating surplus. There are fewer college sports programs that generate operating surpluses.”

    And I wonder how these surpluses are calculated…if there is a legal issue, for example–which seems pretty common in college sports–are legal costs allocated against the program, or do they remain in a university-wide budget? How about facilities costs, power costs, etc?

    (veteran of cost-accounting wars here)

  11. I would prefer they do away with the polite fiction that college sports players are also students. If they represent their schools, then make them part of the school PR staff — and then you can pay them. Best of all, we avoid the scandals of doctored grades and made-up courses specifically set up so athletes can’t fail.

  12. I would prefer they do away with the polite fiction that college sports players are also students.

    When I was a student at SC, the starting center, Laird Willet, was awarded the Order of the Palm for the highest GPA in the student body.

    That was long ago but I just saw a profile of an SC former player who is an orthopedic surgeon. The smart ones are almost always linemen.

  13. The “polite fiction” means that the great majority of players in revenue sports receive neither an education or a realistic chance at pro money. I don’t know if the other sports interfere to the same extent with studies as football and basketball, at least the participants should be under no illusions that there is a pot of gold awaiting them.

    Possibly the most pernicious “polite fiction” is that education, per se, is worthwhile without regard to utility. Theater and music majors might be more articulate and thus get better tips, but probably have about the same job prospects in their majors as the average football player has of turning pro.

    The money to pay “student athletes” would come from further increasing fees, it sure won’t come from admin budgets. We have already “invested” a trillion dollars of debt for nil return.

  14. “The money to pay “student athletes” would come from further increasing fees”
    No. As already noted above, this bill isn’t about schools paying athletes. The payments envisioned are from outside sources, so it’s basically just declaring it to be the state of California’s position that boosters should be able to pay players.
    “I don’t know if the other sports interfere to the same extent with studies as football and basketball”
    Yes, sports like swimming, track and field, etc., take up a LOT of time. Typically athletes get first crack at registering for classes, since they have to work around practice times.
    Apparently the bill doesn’t go into effect until 2023. So far the NCAA, conferences, and schools are unanimously holding their position against it, but it’s got a long time to go. I can’t see how they would capitulate. They’ve fought against this stuff for decades, and no one wants to be outbid for athletes by other schools with richer alumni boosters.

  15. 1) The NCAA has the right to make and enforce [or not enforce] its rules at will. If it means that say XYZ University is barred for playing NCAA teams, so be it.

    2) If there is pay for college athletics, then it no longer is a sideline of being a student, but in fact a job. The money paid the athletes, any scholarships, any bennies, etc. should be taxable income, with the taxes paid annually by the athlete. And, incidentally counted against any eligibility for college financial aid or government student loans.

    Fair is fair.

    Subotai Bahadur, who notes that the only college sports I watch is the Army-Navy Game and the Cadets and Midshipmen are taxed on their pay and allowances.

  16. Brian: For the moment you are right. I wonder how team morale will fare when the one or two players on any team that might be worth real endorsement money have to depend on the others that have to make do with a few bucks from Joe Schmoe’s Used Cars? I see no chance it will stay that way. What if it’s Jack’s Casino paying?

    Maybe it’s time to just face facts and acknowledge that college is nothing more than a trade school combined with a government money laundry and get rid of all the trimmings. We can change the titles from administrator to concierge while we’re at it. The NFL and NBA can build their own pipeline.

  17. Maybe it’s time to just face facts and acknowledge that college is nothing more than a trade school

    If only that was true. I finished college (Didn’t graduate as I was accepted to medical school first) in 1961. The changes that have occurred since then are astounding. I joined a fraternity because it was the cheapest place to live. The only male dormitories at USC were for football and band players. Tuition was about $250 a semester. Inflation has had an effect but I was able to earn enough money to pay tuition by working in the summer. Students were enrolled in practical fields, like Architecture, Business and, for the girls, Elementary Education and Dental Hygiene. There were Philosophy and Communications majors and USC had an outstanding Cinema school where people like George Lucas graduated.

    I can’t remember anything that resembled “Gender Studies” or “African American Studies.” There were plenty of black students and they had fraternities and sororities. The Engineering School, where I was enrolled, was weak but Petroleum Engineering, funded by the Saudis was strong.

    It was a hell of a lot more like a trade school the and a lot has been lost.

  18. I finally read something that said that the way the law is written is to ban schools from making students who get paid for their likeness, etc., ineligible for intercollegiate sports. I have no idea how that’s constitutional, but it at least sort of makes sense. I actually think that the current cultural craziness may mean that there’s a pretty good chance the NCAA will collapse, and that schools in the SEC, Big 10, etc., will tell CA schools they’re out. Thanks to the insanity where CA (and other blue states) ban state business travel to those bad, bigoted red states, and where the NCAA bullied NC about their bathroom bill, I could easily imagine schools in most of the country saying the NCAA rules are going to stay the same, and they’d rather have an association without CA schools than change the rules.

  19. I’m pretty sure that the big companies (sneakers,etc.) that have a relationship with the NCAA are restricted from violating NCAA rules. Presumably, any entity that violated the eligibility rules would be persona non grata on any campus outside of California. So we’re talking chump change to the athletes.

    I wonder what the theory is concerning non-state schools?

    The NCAA won’t be missed until it’s gone, then the trouble will start. I don’t think there are any shortage of coaches that just want to change one rule.

  20. The problem with many sports discussions of College Athletes is they disregard two things. First the vast majority of NCAA athletes are NOT male college BB or Football players. And second almost every NCAA sport EXCEPT men’s BB and Football LOSES Money. Sure, maybe NCAA hockey or BB break-even but that’s about it.

    In any case, if you pay NCAA football players and BB players you are going to have to pay ALL The athletes. Including the 50% that are women. And if you discriminate, you’ll have to have a good reason why Joe QB is making more than Sally Field Hockey. Which also brings up the question. Why should Joe QB make the same as the 3rd string Off-tackle? So what does “Paying them” mean? The whole thing is a Quagmire that College football should stay out of.

  21. As for sports writers. Most of them dweebs in HS, and never got over their envy of the Star QB who got all the girls. Making it even worse, is that most sports writers are upset they are stuck in the “Journalism Toy Department”. So, they’re constantly trying to prove that they are SERIOUS JOURNALISTS. And also, very left-wing. Hence, the sneery attitude toward athletes, and the constant talk of racism/sexism/homophobia etc. etc.

    And when it comes to College Football Coaches the sportswriters hate is off the charts. I mean most of these Coaches act like REPUBLICANS, (aka they talk about hard work, team work, and are un-PC) can you believe it? And then they make 10x what a sportswriter does, even though the writer are 10x smarter (they think).

  22. Mike K
    He was listed as a guard but I remember he played center. Pretty decent team but, as you will note,. They were normal size guys. No 6-5 340 pound linemen.

    My father was a second-string center on his college football team in the 1930s, at 6’0″ and 150 pounds. That is one hundred and fifty pounds. No typo. I know a high school teacher who was a 6’2″ 240 pound lineman in high school. He didn’t even attempt to play football in college- he knew he was too small.

  23. Speaking of the sportswriters, Sports Illustrated is cutting 50% of their staff. I’m surprised they lasted this long, having failed to make the jump from print to online.

    There has been a lot of buzz about Silicon Valley darlings The Athletic, but I just can’t bring myself to pay for sports news when there’s so much free content provided by fan sites and blogs. Just like everything else taken over by the internet, sports news is going to have a few big subscriber outlets with star reporters, a thousand small free lance content providers, and very little in between.

  24. Sports writing – in particular sports illustrated – has been a joke for a long time. With Cable TV, the internet, etc. you watch all the games/matches yourself, so the sports writers are reducing to either “analysis” or “Soap Opera”. Mostly they write soap opera. Who dislikes who, who’s having trouble with his wife, who’s getting a big raise, who’s getting fired, and what somebody said on social media. Its turned into gossip for men.

    Very few people want to read analysis. And even fewer sports writers can do it. One good thing about College is we’re mostly spared all the soap opera about the players, mostly because they’re unknown and are gone in a year or two.

  25. Sometime lurker, testing the water. This notion of play-for-pay goes back at least to Vonnegut’s Player Piano IIRC.

    If my alma mater and lifelong employer is any indication, major-sports athletes are pampered and cocooned in such a fashion that pay is just about irrelevant. I don’t care much about sports, but I do know that the level of pay of assistant coaches exceeds that for college deans, and somehow our local media manage to make that look like a positive . . .

    One of my boyhood friends was, like his father, an outstanding athlete, especially in football. He got a fb scholarship to UT (Big Orange, when they had teams) but transferred back home.
    He eventually dropped out entirely, and I recall (because we had not been close in years and he was troubled enough to tell me of all people) how even then (mid-70s) the system was massively corrupt. He eventually became a cop, head of security at the local ivy-lite, and actor.

    We live just 1/4 mile or so from the athletic training complex, which is an expensive state-of-the-art facility that is getting yet another upgrade. In the mornings this time of year we sometimes can hear the footballers practice to blaring rap music. I especially enjoy the couplet

    Bitches on they knees,
    Ready to please.

    Your taxes and ticket purchases at work.

    Now, when I get solicitations for money, I let them pile up for eventual forwarding to the athletic department.

  26. One good thing about College is we’re mostly spared all the soap opera about the players, mostly because they’re unknown and are gone in a year or two.

    There are a couple of good blogs about my school, USC. They discuss scouting and injuries, etc.

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