The debate over paying college athletes is fueled by two sides, each with very persuasive arguments. Those in favor of compensation over and above scholarships, travel expenses, gear, and other miscellaneous rewards believe that student-athletes are exploited at their universities. They are used as recruiting tools for both future athletes and regular students, to sell apparel in bookstores, and tickets to games. Most of all, they are taken advantage of since the bulk of their “free” time is spent training and competing rather than studying or being a “normal” 20 year old college student. Regardless of the constraints on the livelihoods of these college athletes, there is no conscionable reason that we should be paying our stars of tomorrow. I was a former four-year college athlete that trained year-round, practicing 20+ hours a week participating in “optional/mandatory” workouts after the NCAA maximum was reached and visiting the training room seven hours a week. While finishing my athletic career, I also managed to complete the course work for my degree in Business Administration, make life long friends, and develop a multitude of skill-sets applicable in the natatorium, the classroom and beyond.
One of the biggest issues I see with paying college athletes is that nobody is suggesting that we pay all college athletes. Not only does this bring into play escalating issues and increased tensions between “revenue” and “Olympic” sports, but it also adds impetus to the constant gender equity debate. What impact might this have on Title IX? Which sports will be eligible for compensation? How will salaries be determined? Who will get paid?
Currently, a full scholarship athlete receives a full-tuition waiver, room and board, and books. At most schools in the country, this is a value of $25,000 – $40,000 per year depending on in-state/out-of-state rates. In 2005, the US Census Bureau reported the median household income to be $46,326 per year. Therefore, it is likely that a collegiate athlete on full scholarship almost hits this number in the value of their educational expenses without even taking into consideration the “priceless” experience of a secondary education. There are plenty of underprivileged 18 year olds who will never go to college, and others who will, but will be paying off six figures in loans when they finally graduate. This issue takes a backseat while we hotly debate paying an additional sum of money to many college athletes that are already rewarded through scholarships, top-notch coaching, equipment, facilities, and medical care. Now we are going to pay them too?
University athletes receive medical care completely free of cost. Proponents of paying college athletes note that most of these costs would not exist if they were not playing their sport. However, the cause of the injury is not discriminated against – all medical costs are covered, from twisted ankles in a drunken stumble to pneumonia to regular check-ups to torn ACLs. Physical therapy and rehabilitation are not only readily available but also required. Team doctors and trainers travel to away competition and sit at practice ready in case of emergency as well as always a full “team” of specialists to help student-athletes through the rigors of college.
As a non-revenue athlete, I had a orthopedist, a vascular surgeon, a nerve specialist, a general doctor, a physical therapist, a trainer, a sports psychologist, a student-athlete academic advisor (in addition to the one designated by the school of business), tutors in every subject, a nutritionist, four strength coaches, four swim coaches, three graduate coaches, a manager, and the natatorium staff. Non-athlete students do not have a sophisticated support staff to cater to their every need but may have similar issues for which they have to pay and find the appropriate avenues to seek out the help. I also was given athlete-only college preparatory classes and career planning classes, priority registration, campus parking capabilities, elite leadership training seminars, and many other opportunities that non-athletes are not granted. This is simply another way in which college athletes are rewarded for their service.
In this way, and many others, I believe we should view college athletes as being paid already. The invaluable “team” experience one receives is a personal development tool and a resume-booster. Many times fans and alumni alike feel more inclined to hire a collegiate athlete simply based on their commitment and service to the university for their four years. Additionally, almost every student at a sports-centered university can notice specific teams and/or athletes on campus sporting gear or material items that were not part of their team-issue. It is no coincidence when the starting offensive line all drives the same car. Sometimes per-diem is used as a type of payoff as well, depending on the way that budgets are allocated. When athletes must stay to train over breaks during University closures, they typically receive somewhere between $35 and $50 a day for food, but also get team meals at no cost. Multiply this over ten days and that money ads up. Athletes receive free travel complete with posh accommodations, per-diem, and other miscellaneous gifts. When you are part of the collegiate athletics circle, you realize that there are certain kick-backs and perks that go along with athletic membership for all involved.
When will it stop? Paying college athletes becomes a slippery slope. Will schools competing for top talent drive up prices? Currently schools compete with scholarship offers – full or partial – and salaries for athletes would simply be another differerentiating factor. Increased recruiting rivalry would escalate both violence and questionable ethical behavior which are already two very difficult issues in collegiate athletics. The bottom line is that Universities are not-for-profit institutions. If this were not true, only football and basketball (probably men’s only) would be played. In addition, universities are schools not sports teams; they are wider educational institutions that offer sports to current students only. There is a place that athletes can go to make money – professional sports. Barriers to entry into professional sports before college degree completion are starting to become less stringent, giving those very talented athletes the chance to earn some money for their efforts. College athletes should not be earning money for their sporting successes since they are awarded a free education, an invaluable experience, and four (or five) extra years of doing what they love and what they do best.