What with the fresh coat of paint over Reggie Bush’s collegiate exploits, the multi-player scandal at UNC, AJ Greene’s jerseygate, and, yes, the allegations that swirl around Cam… again the question rears its head: should college football players get paid?
The issue seems to boil down to this: college football is an enormous industry, generating hundreds of millions of dollars every year, and excluding scholarships, the young men on whose backs this enterprise is built see nary a dime of that vast take. Some folks see this as basically criminal – after all, aren’t college athletes risking life and limb to play a game for our entertainment, for historic but impractical rivalries, simply to play it at all? Do they not earn every penny on the field? And isn’t this stuff going on everywhere, anyway?
The model that underlies that reasoning is a sort of NFL-lite : colleges are businesses, businesses create revenue, and those who toil in body and mind to make it happen are entitled to their share. On the surface it makes plain sense. But it’s wrong.
Collegiate endeavors – athletic or academic – are not built on that model. Think about the average grad student, who pays nothing but time and effort into attaining a terminal degree. Think of the student volunteers who help run community organizations, the kids who run political clubs that stump for candidates, the participants in intramural competitions. Does the president grace his Young Democrats with their cut of the financial spoils? No. Does the grad student get a share of the enormous grant they help their principal investigator win? No. Not one of them gets paid – or if they do, it’s not a share, it’s more of a stipend that allows them to eke out a living whilst they study.
So why do they do it? Why does a grad student slave over their thesis, staining their teeth with buckets of cheap coffee and sacrificing much of an average twenty-something’s normalcy as they burn through day after day in the lab? Why do the Young Republicans invest hour after hour as they grassroots-campaign for their candidate? Why do the mathletes compete? What they get out of these non-paying positions is what we all hope to get out of our educations: opportunity. Just about every college student emerges in worse financial straits than when they entered, but in far better position to make and to seize opportunities in their chosen fields. The young politician gets his start on the campaign trail. The PhD who runs an industry lab was once a nose on his PI’s grindstone, scraping by as he completed his training. That’s what makes grad students amateurs. Amateur status is not going unpaid for your work. It’s the period of development that precedes marketable, salable proficiency.
You come to learn, you give us the sweat of your brow, you help the university grow and succeed, and in return, you get the opportunity to make a career out of your particular skill-set. If we’re talking about a master’s program in chemistry or engineering, no one blinks when the patents, grants, and royalties go entirely in the PI’s pockets. We have to remember that, likewise, college football players are still in school, and not just so they can attain a recognized degree in their chosen field of study. These guys attend regular college and are simultaneously attending graduate study in football, entirely analogous to grad school in almost any other field in terms of its commitments and specializations.
And accordingly, its pay structure should be identical – pay them in education and opportunity. They get a college degree for free, and for a select few, the kind of training that will make them into twenty-two year-old millionaires.
What an astronomically good investment, what an incredible deal. The development of complex and specialized skills. The essential physical conditioning. Discovering an appropriate role in a pro football system. Scholarship athletes pay essentially nothing for access to these critical services. How much do you think that kind of training is worth, for the average college football player with any aspirations toward the NFL? Few graduate programs can offer such amazing returns on, essentially, an initial ante of zero. For comparison’s sake, I accrued about $250,000 in loans just going through medical school, currently make less than minimum wage (if you divide my resident’s salary over the hours I put into the hospital,) and as a physician will bring home about a tenth of what successful NFL athletes pull down in a year. Who’s the better investor here?
I say, while still in training, they’re still amateurs, and if they don’t need any more training, then let them declare for the NFL like any other professional might. Eradicate the minimum age at which players go pro, and let the NFL draft be the professional opinion which enforces amateur status. After all, the people who judge whether a player is NFL-ready ought to be the NFL, not the NCAA, or the coaches, or the players themselves. And regarding potential NFL players, I’m for a hyper-amateurization of the sport: take a select few guys and admit them to a graduate football program. Give them a core of basics in terms of mathematics, English, and science and then fill up the rest with seminars on the history of the game, basic offensive / defensive philosophies, and practical economics / business skills they can use to successfully manage their pro-ball fortunes. That’s bound to be more useful – and let’s out with it, more honest – than a parks ‘n’ rec degree.
John has been going to Auburn games since before he was born. He was in –Legion Field- utero when Bo went over the top. Some mothers play Mozart to their developing progeny. John was raised on the roars of the Tiger faithful. You can chart his growth with his fantastic column, God, Girl, Grill, Gridiron, and write to him at [email protected].
Motivational poster by Auburn Elvis.
Agreed. Those who advocate payment do not understand the value of the educational, athletic, and resultant financial opportunities an athletic scholarship awards players (or they simply want to justify their school’s illicit payment).
Mac Mirabile says
Does the argument change if there is a lockout in the NFL?
As Auburn Fans we assume that Cam and his fathers interests are the same as the University and its fans, when in fact they are not. If Mr Newton did take money, he and Cam really are not hurt in the end, except for having to give up the eventual heisman trophy. Cam will still goes pro and make zillions of dollars playing on Sunday. Until and if punishment does come downfrom the NCAA years from now, we can still enjoy the games, recruits are still getting buzzed about the program, and the turd fans will still spend all their time fretting and making excuses for the eventual defeat in the Iron bowl.
Respectfully disagree (as a grad student making no money, in a field that will never make me money!). College athletes are a lot of things, one of things (just like in the pros) is an entertainer. I pay money to watch them entertain me. I pay to see them, and they get no money (or at least a disproportionately small amount). That seems wrong. Underamour, Nike, all slap logos on these kids and they get nothing for it. Their likenesses are reproduced in video games. Jerseys with their numbers are sold.
Give them an hourly wage or something for all the practice and game time.
I agree with you that, as amateurs, college athletes shouldn’t be paid. Especially when you think of it this way: football and basketball bring in the most money at most schools. so how much do you pay athletes in other sports? there is no way auburn is turning a profit on, say, volleyball. the games are free and there is little to no merchandising. so where does the money come from to pay them?
and paying players means the biggest schools would be the only ones that could afford the best players, which would further eliminate parity. and if you say “well establish the same pay for players at all schools,” what about schools that don’t bring in millions of dollars a year in football. i’m sure at most non-bcs conference schools, football barely breaks even. so if you established a “minimum wage,” it would probably be next to nothing, and totally unrelated to all the jerseys and video games the players help sell. i mean look at the NBA. the league has been losing money every year for years now. is that how we want college sports to be to?
i think the best way to compensate players for what they do is to loosen up some of the restrictions the ncaa places on them. let them market themselves and sign endorsements. other amateur athletes are allowed to do that. let aj green sell his own jersey. (or at least don’t suspend him 4 games when he does whenever other players that drive drink and beat their girlfriends get half-game suspensions). You are right John, comparing college sports to professional sports and saying the players should be paid is a logical fallacy. college sports operate on a totally different business model than professional sports.
Auburn Elvis says
I’m against payment, but recently, I’ve become open to the idea of allowing all student-athletes to make one paid endorsement per year. Such an allowance wouldn’t cost the NCAA or schools any additional money, yet it would allow the players to be compensated for their celebrity, not directly off their athletic performance.
I love the NBA. However, saying it loses money is proof only of a bad collective bargaining agreement for the owners. If it proved anything more then the enormous amount of money the NFL makes counters that argument. Also the case is that most NBA owners lose money (many of whom don’t mind). The NBA makes a lot of money for the players, agents, a few owners, NIKE, Adidas, ABC/ESPN, TNT. In many ways it’s a very successful industry.
As far as paying helping big programs I don’t see why the NCAA couldn’t be responsible for paying athletes. A small cut of the TV money goes to the NCAA and they distribute it evenly to players on a per hour basis, rather than individual schools footing the bill and doing the paying. It’s already regulated how many hours teams are allowed to practice anyway. The big programs would be footing the bill, but they’re the ones who make the most money off of it anyway, so just consider it something like a progressive tax. I’m sure that players could get paid substantially more than minimum wage, if this happened (though honestly I haven’t done the math. Even if they could only get minimum wage, which I doubt, pay them minimum wage: it’s still more than they’re getting now). I’m not arguing that college players should be making money comperable to professional athletes, just that they can and should get some money. If you take 12 hours of classes a week and 20 hours of football (as the ncaa dictates), there’s little time to hold down a job. This would also cut down on under the table exchanges (yes I know they would still occur, but I contend less).
Sure, college football primarily exists for our entertainment / gratification. And the players do have the largest role. But the fact that they entertain us doesn’t mean they should get monetary compensation.
We have other examples of graduate degree programs whose students function as entertainers. Compare graduate football to a music conservatory like Juillliard. Students there will belong to a variety of ensembles and put on concerts throughout the year, and practice endlessly – they are probably working harder than the football players (if only because music is the only thing they do.) And yet, for all the money collected in tickets at the shows in which they perform, for which they practice their instrument for hours every day, they don’t see a cut of the door, or an hourly wage – all the box office goes right into the school’s coffers. In fact, the students are willing to pay tuition in order to play for free. The training and the Juilliard name are simply that valuable.
Thusly, we could also describe college football programs as athletic conservatories. The model at a music conservatory is essentially identical to the football model in that students both places put in the time and effort, promote their institution through performance (the proceeds of which they do not directly enjoy) and their compensation comes in the form of facilities, prestige, and elite training. Except, you know, that the musicians pay tuition, whereas the players get the chance for free.
It’s not to say that football players are not providing a valuable service – they are. And it’s not to say that football players should not be somehow compensated – they should. But the compensation they receive is A) a free college education and B) an enormously expensive team of private tutors whose services could not otherwise be retained. In my opinion, to suggest that these things are insufficient compensation is to drastically underestimate their value.