College athletics make millions of dollars for schools every year, but unlike professional sports, its athletes don’t earn a penny. The NCAA, the governing body for college athletics, has restricted student-athletes from receiving any type of payment, other than a scholarship, from a school for playing for one of its sports teams. Several Division 1 schools, including University of Southern California and Ohio State University, have been reprimanded when the NCAA authorities found their players guilty of accepting payments. The first step towards reform of the system came in March 2014, when football players at Northwestern University won a ruling that allowed them to unionize and classified the players as employees. The current push is for student-athletes to receive a share of the money and be paid as employees in the business of college athletics. Paying student-athletes would dramatically alter the landscape of college athletics and transform its image into an institution that mirrors the professional level rather than high school level. This has all built up to one question: “Should college athletes be paid?” While the idea of paying student-athletes is viewed by some as a better system that would benefit the athletes and spread the wealth, it is also seen as a problem that could ruin college athletics.
Paul Ulane, a writer for the magazine Sports Illustrated Kids, believes that paying college athletes would have an extraordinary impact on college athletics, but not for the better. “Students play for the love of the game, not money,” Ulane writes. “If money becomes involved, those values (education, life lessons, competitive athletics) go out the window.” Ulane also points out that “it is hard to imagine a completely fair way to pay all of the athletes” and adds that some sports, such as golf or cross country, might need to be shut down in the proposed system. The reasons that Ulane uses show the damage that the change would do to the student athletes as well as the teams themselves.
In contrast, Sachin Shenolikar, another contributor to Sports Illustrated Kids, feels that it is only fair to pay the athletes on college teams. “Playing a college sport is a full-time job, and one that doesn’t pay,” he argues. Shenolikar also finds fault in the division of money in the current system. “Factor in that coaches, administrators, and corporations do make money off the athletes’ talents and hard work, and you have a system that is unfair,” he writes. “[Athletes] should get a fair share of the money generated from their sports.” Shenolikar’s view puts a premium on the fairness, or lack of it, in the current system, showing fault and supporting the belief that athletes do deserve money for performance.
In the New York Times’ Room for Debate series, multiple sides to the issue are presented. Kenneth L. Shropshire, a professor at University of Pennsylvania, director of the Sports Business Institute, sports lawyer, and author, has a cautious reaction to the movement. In the Northwestern case, which pushed for unionization, the National Labor Relations said that “in the case scholarship players aren’t students first.” Shropshire’s stance was that “if it takes declaring that your academics are secondary to sports in order to win at this phase, then these Northwestern men are truly revolutionaries.” This evidence shows that the unionization of student-athletes and overall idea of paying them demeans the college education and drops it to a lower priority. Allen Sack, a professor at the University of New Haven and president of the Drake Group, ties the legal aspect to the issue. According to the workman’s compensation law in Michigan, which Sack includes in his piece, the four factors needed to employ for compensation are the employer’s right to control, the employer’s right to discipline or fire, payment for living expenses, and importance to business. Sack concludes that “it is difficult to read these factors and conclude that big-time college athletes are not employees.” The law shows the similarities between the student-athlete and employee to the point that the athlete can reasonably be viewed as an employee. A third side of the issue is also presented. Amy Privette Perko, the executive director of the Knight Commission, which oversees college athletics, insists that student-athletes should be seen as students first but welcomes the idea of ensuring that the voices of the student-athletes are heard. She also proposes that the money from the sports should be used for the school instead of only the athletics. “The priority should be on directing more money toward universities’ educational and developmental purposes,” Perko says. This presents a new solution that makes the current system more fair without creating a new one.
The proposed system to compensate student-athletes is more unfair than the current system and it would harm them both on the field and in the classroom. Yes, student-athletes deserve compensation for their hard work, but under the guise of intercollegiate athletics it is impossible to create a system that pays sufficient money to each athlete and sport, as Ulane points out. The product would suffer because the athletes would be playing for personal monetary gain, not for the purpose of winning as a team. Academic quality would also go out the window, as Shropshire notes, when the athletics would be given priority over learning. Sack is correct in stating that student-athletes can be easily seen as employees, but student-athletes give their consent to do ‘work’ without earning money and the academics should be viewed as the first priority. Perko’s proposal of an optimal distribution of money, sending more of the income to other departments, should be strongly considered because it brings reform in a way that improves but stops short of overhauling the system. Lastly, many student-athletes are already compensated with a scholarship and quality education. In some cases, the scholarship can be worth upwards of $100,000. It is solely the student-athlete’s fault if he chooses to disregard the payment for his services.
The current system isn’t perfect, but it is more feasible, functional, and fair than the alternative. Reform to the current system is needed and should be welcomed, but the movement for player payment is driving college athletics in a wrong direction and is not the answer. The greatness of college athletics should not be fumbled away.
UPDATE: The NLRB ruled this week that the Northwestern athletes are not allowed to unionize, citing that the structure of college athletics doesn’t allow for one.