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Why Paying College Athletes is a Terrible Idea

Updated on February 27, 2013
Paying college athletes could undermine the entire American university system and create a permanent gap between have and have-not schools.
Paying college athletes could undermine the entire American university system and create a permanent gap between have and have-not schools. | Source

The dramatic increase in the money made from big time college athletics over the past three decades has inspired many respected sports journalists and other observers to propose that college athletes should be monetarily compensated for their sports participation, over and above their college scholarships and other benefits. The money in big time college sports today, they say, is huge—why shouldn’t the athletes, who are after all the main attraction—be reasonably compensated for their work?

In 2010, CBS and Turner Broadcasting signed a 10-year deal for multimedia and marketing rights to the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball tournament for $10.8 billion. The Bowl Championship Series collects $155 million annually from just five games-- the championship game, the Fiesta, Orange, Sugar and Rose bowls. A new plan for a playoff system starting in 2014 has the potential to command TV rights well in excess of the current BCS deal. The SEC has a 15-year contract with CBS and ESPN worth a combined $205 million annually; the Pac-12 recently signed a TV deal with ESPN and Fox worth $225 million every year. And then there are tens of millions in revenue from local and regional broadcasting rights, stadium advertising, and other sources.

College sports venues are increasingly underwritten or donated by wealthy patrons or corporations, thus freeing up additional funds for the schools. In many states, college coaches are the highest-paid state employees, earning many multiples of the salaries earned by governors or any other state employee. These salaries are justified by the enormous revenue that many state schools pull in from their sports programs.

But creating a semi-professional college sports industry is an absolutely atrocious idea that would ruin a lot more than just college sports—it could end up destroying the primacy and strategic advantage of the American higher education system altogether. There may be a compelling case to be made for a few individuals in college sports, but the idea of damaging college sports overall, undermining the collegiate athletic system, eliminating opportunities for thousands of other student athletes, and potentially devastating the American higher education system in the process has to be one of the worst ideas ever proposed.

College Sports is a Money Loser

First of all, despite all the money supposedly flowing in to college sports, overall it is an enormous money loser. There are only two college sports that actually produce significant revenue—men’s Division I-A football, and men’s basketball. With the exception of one or two other sports at a handful of schools—women’s basketball at a few major schools with a dominant recent history of Final Four appearances, and men’s Division II-A football at a few select schools—no other sports in college athletics even come close to paying for their expenses.

There is only one major college that I know of—The University of Michigan—that actually turns a small profit on their full complement of athletic programs. The enormous revenue from the University of Michigan football team, produced from their perpetually- sold out football games in their 100,000-seat stadium, produces enough surplus revenue to just about pay for all of their other collegiate sports. In some years, other programs may come out in the black, but by and large, every single major sports school takes a loss on their entire athletic budget.

When it comes to less popular sports like track, hockey, volleyball, wrestling, tennis, soccer, and baseball, there is little or no significant revenue at all. In actuality, the major revenue sports at those schools are partially subsidizing the non-revenue sports programs that provide an opportunity for hundreds of men and women athletes to compete at the highest collegiate level. Many of these student athletes in non-revenue sports become our Olympians, gain competitive experience on the playing field to become corporate leaders, and use their talents in low-profile athletics to gain a college education for a much more affordable price. Tapping into the revenues that come from only two revenue sports would eliminate this opportunity for hundreds of student athletes.

A Level Playing Field

One of the major attributes that makes Men’s Division I college basketball so compelling is the idea that on any given night (or season), a smaller school with little or no tradition of big-time college basketball success can knock off a traditional powerhouse, or rise to prominence at the highest level. Smaller schools like Butler University, with a men’s college basketball budget of $2.3 million, can make it to the NCAA Division I college basketball championship game two years in a row; Gonzaga can rise out of obscurity in a smaller conference to reach the Elite Eight and perform on par with any of the major programs in the nation; Butler, VCU, George Mason, Indiana State, Utah, and UNLV can make it to the Final Four over larger and more traditionally successful schools from more esteemed conferences ; 15-seeds like Hampton University, Valparaiso, Norfolk State, and the University of Richmond can (and have) pulled a David vs. Goliath act in the NCAA Tournament and sent the top seeds and most venerable programs in college basketball home for the summer; and Larry Bird or Gordon Hayworth can take Indiana State or Butler on his back to the National Championship game.

Paying men’s college basketball or football players would immediately create a two-tiered system in college sports that would eliminate this kind of competition, and permanently relegate the have-nots to perpetual have-not status. In turn, this would relegate college athletes at lower-rated programs in lower-regarded conferences to have no chance at all to emerge as a late blooming superstar.

And for every big time college basketball program like Kentucky, Duke, or Syracuse, there are five or six schools that toil outside the limelight and only occasionally get a moment to bask in the big time. These schools draw only 1500 to 4000 fans to their basketball games-- many of them students who pay little or nothing. The acutal paying fans and the real revenue collected for men's college basketball at the vast majority of schools in mid-major and smaller conferences barely covers the cost of the coaching staff salaries, let alone travel, medical expenses, game day operations, and recruiting.

The entire college sports system would soon be bound by the determinations of recruiters and scouts who would delve even deeper into the ranks of high school sports with bidding wars and potentially unethical interference. The traditional powerhouses and larger schools would have undue influence as a result of their resources; the marginal players would be kept from opportunities by closing off choices for colleges; nefarious or fly-by-night agents and promoters would seek to cash in on the dreams or misguided notions of parents and coaches and student athletes to make a quick buck; and small, private schools would have little or no chance at attracting top players who might be better suited to their schools.

A 2011 Final Four banner hangs in Virginia Commonwealth University Siegel Center, despite VCU ranking 169th of 344 Division I teams in 2011 athletic department revenues.
A 2011 Final Four banner hangs in Virginia Commonwealth University Siegel Center, despite VCU ranking 169th of 344 Division I teams in 2011 athletic department revenues. | Source

What Would be The Benefit of Paying Athletes?

One of the arguments I’ve heard for paying top college football and basketball players is the fact that potential professional could be injured at the college level, which would ruin their chances at a lucrative pro career. But the same thing could happen at the high school level, while walking up the stairs to their first college class, or in their practice after signing a lower-end pro contract. If these athletes make it to college at all on a scholarship, they have already gained tens of thousands of dollars in education right off the bat--and thousands in sports medicine care-- without ever having walked on a field before a paying audience. And what is the guarantee that a highly-regarded college athlete will make it out of their first professional training camp after being drafted?

Only first round basketball picks—30 people each year, an increasing number of whom don’t play college basketball in the United States at all—receive guaranteed, binding contracts that don’t depend on their ability to make an NBA basketball team. Are we to completely and irrevocable alter college sports in the United States—and possibly ruin the system of higher education in the #1 country in the world-- for fewer than 30 professional basketball players and a similar number of professional football players?

Professional athletes in the United States are already one of the most grossly overpaid classes of individuals in the entire nation—perhaps the entire world-- given their contributions to society. As a sports fan, I don’t begrudge them a seemingly astronomical salary, especially given their limited window of high earning power. But irreparably altering and almost certainly harming the entire higher education system in the United States in order to be “fairer” to a relative handful of aspiring professional athletes has to be among the worst ideas ever proposed in the history of Western Civilization.

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  • RonElFran profile image

    Ronald E. Franklin 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

    Every time I hear the idea of paying "student athletes" I know in my gut it's wrong, but I never really thought through the reasons. This article lays out some very cogent and compelling reasons why paying college athletes makes no sense. If you pay college athletes, by what reasoning could you not pay high school athletes? That lawsuit wouldn't be long in coming. And would a star college QB be paid more than the left tackle who protects him? I guess that would depend on which one had the better agent. Would the pay scale at all schools be the same, whether they can afford it or not, or would wealthier schools be able to assure themselves of getting the best athletes by bidding up the price? Now that you've started me thinking about this, the potential ramifications of professionalizing college sports are crowding into my mind. Makes you wonder just how well proponents have thought this through.

  • Hui (蕙) profile image

    Hui (蕙) 3 years ago

    Great information, and insightful opinions.

  • e-five profile image
    Author

    e-five 3 years ago from Chicago, Illinois, USA

    Paul Edmondson-- Yes, many coaches in college athletics are paid outlandish salaries. In many states-- if not most-- the highest paid state employee is a football or basketball coach for a state university. Some argue that the coaches are worth it, because of the players and revenue they bring in. The "arms race" in terms of attracting coaches leads to the eye-popping salaries, which are sometimes double-digit multiples of what the state governors make. Yeah, it's ugly. Limiting the salaries is a difficult thing to do when the pros are often trying to poach good coaching talent, and the revenue brought in by a great coach sometimes funds dozens of other low or non-revenue intercollegiate sports like wrestling, cross country, women's volleyball, soccer, swimming, tennis, golf, etc.

    But again, my point in the article is that you can't make rules for the entire intercollegiate sports system based on the 5% to 7% that are extreme outliers. If you make the rules based on Michigan football and Duke basketball, you destroy the fragile economic model that 75-90% of schools are using to compete in a variety of non-revenue sports. Say goodbye to track and field, soccer, volleyball, softball, tennis, golf, and swimming at all but the largest public schools, and bid farewell to mid-sized schools competing in football and men's basketball.

  • Paul Edmondson profile image

    Paul Edmondson 3 years ago from Burlingame, CA

    I don't know enough about how the financial system of college sports works, but it doesn't seem right for the top coaches to get such outsized pay compared to the players. Should coaches salaries be capped?

  • e-five profile image
    Author

    e-five 3 years ago from Chicago, Illinois, USA

    Thanks to everyone who's read and commented.

    Pkittock -- You're right about paying athletes for rights to their images and autographs, it's clearly unfair. But I think the issue behind that is who brokers that transaction. The ban on making money from autographs and images is an extension on the ban on agents. It's a seemingly unjust and severe regulation that's intended to keep the camel's nose out of the tent.

  • Pkittock profile image

    Pkittock 3 years ago from Minnesota

    What about instead of paying athletes, the NCAA allowed them to make money off of their likeness (signing autographs, making t-shirts, whatever). This would avoid the conundrum about how to split pay between a QB and a punter and would save schools from having to pay athletes themselves. If a pop star went to college, they'd be able to sign autographs or whatever for money, why shouldn't a college athlete be able to capitalize on their brand the same way?

  • Triplet Mom profile image

    Triplet Mom 3 years ago from West Coast

    Nicely written. The only argument I have is that being in college athletes do need spending money and since they are not allowed to work they should have some type of monies that they can use towards spending. Something like $400 a month on top of their scholarship would be helpful. It does not have to be crazy money by any stretch of the imagination but at least something simply because they are not allowed to work.

  • RC Cooper profile image

    RC Cooper 3 years ago from Michigan

    The least they could do is pay for their college tuition and college expenses. Many of them aren't getting fully paid educations and they'll be doomed to be in debt to it the rest of their lives once they graduate and don't go pro.

  • mcbel profile image

    mcbel 3 years ago from New Hampshire

    I typically read a hub and can think of a few major (or minor) points to make in concise paragraphs of fifty words or less. However, these comments and the hub itself are so well written that in response I feel the need to write an entirely new hub. Great hub.

    My #1 issue with the mere inclination to pay college athletes is what happens to professional athletes when they don't go to college at all. NBA superstars Dwight Howard and LeBron James are great examples of this behavior. While both are talented without question, both are (just as unanimously) quite the selfish @-holes. They make their own teams and buy their own championship crowns. They do this because they're in it for the money. The last time they played for free was in high school, when there was little or even less competition. Things came easy, and once the money started, they came even easier. Luckily the NBA has at created the at-least-one-year-of-college-rule, but clearly this isn't enough--especially if the school they play for is paying them. Money causes players to lose sight of true competition (I'll leave this description to the cliché--blood, sweat and tears), a problem that players like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson never dealt with. If you can find a retired athlete's biography that DOESN'T talk about their jobs mowing lawns and working nightshifts at McDonald's during the off season, I'll rest my case.

  • John Sarkis profile image

    John Sarkis 3 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

    Congrats on winning HOTD! Your sentences are really well structured - it's a very well written article; however, I don't agree with some of the things you said. All and all, it's an interesting perspective - voted up.

  • Levertis Steele profile image

    Levertis Steele 3 years ago from Southern Clime

    Considering the amount of money these colleges rake in and knowing that the high-paid coaches and hard-working players mostly make it happen, it seems that some sort of incentive would be given aside from free education. The players should be grateful for a tuitition-free education considering the cost of four years of college at most prestigious schools.

    I do understand the point that no one should want college athletics to become a big-money business and lose the grip on the college's mission: to educate. However, good behavior, excellent-to-good grades, fine sportsmanship, good citizenship, and other honorable mentions could be considered as reasons for a reward of a reasonable monetary gift upon GRADUATION, and only graduation! That way, there won't be the problem of great athletes capitalizing from the school if they do not care enough to remain in good standing and earn a quality education. This should not be promised, but awarded to those who earn it just as students receive honors every year on awards day.

    Actually, many players would never have a chance to attend those colleges/universities if they could not get an athletic scholarship. Coaches want the best players, and it is probably very hard not to do a bit of slight crookedness (i.e., pulling in a guy who does not care much for an education) in order to have the best team. Coaches are under tremendous pressure. If they are not successful, they will get fired, and their BIG bucks will stop rolling. Money is powerful!

    In comparison, many professional choir directors get paid handsomely while their hard-working choir members do not. How about that!

    I must add that I do have mixed feelings about paying athletes, but a gift upon graduation could prove to be a good deal.

    Another one of those unexpected, but good, hubs!

  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 3 years ago from Taos, NM

    Really a great article and congratulations on HOTD. This is truly a deserving hub! I agree with you wholeheartedly. It's all about money, isn't it? Once these athletes go the the college level to play it is no longer about playing for the love of the sport. That is so sad. You present your argument so well in this article and maybe you should send it to some sports magazines for publication there also. Great job!

  • carlajbehr profile image

    Carla J Behr 3 years ago from NW PA

    Congratulations on HOTD! I work for a higher ed institution - I couldn't agree more - you raise good points in your article. Very interesting topic!

  • Scott P Williams profile image

    Scott P Williams 3 years ago from Miami, Florida

    Their pay is a free college education but most of the good players don't stay long enough to graduate. The school should allow the players to earn money in some sort of way. They earn millions for the school and they can't even receive a gift of a pair of sneakers or a sweat shirt.

  • Harry Letterman profile image

    Harry 3 years ago from UK

    Don't see anything bad really

  • ib radmasters profile image

    ib radmasters 4 years ago from Southern California

    e-five

    I don't watch sports or follow sports on a regular basis, but I am shocked at how much money is in the games, even starting with high school.

  • e-five profile image
    Author

    e-five 4 years ago from Chicago, Illinois, USA

    Thanks for reading and commenting, rfmoran and ib radmasters... Having gone to a mid major school myself (that also happens to have a college basketball national championship), it really irks me that some otherwise smart college sports observers would be quite willing to dispose with the current system in exchange for a system with a few mega schools and a whole lot of permanent underclass schools just to service a handful of elite athletes.

  • e-five profile image
    Author

    e-five 4 years ago from Chicago, Illinois, USA

    spartucusjones Thanks for reading and your comments. First, you are right--- college athletes are not allowed to do most paid work while they're on scholarship. This rule was created after a lot of athletes got phony no-show jobs making enormous salaries from boosters. I am currently reading a book about college athletics in the early 1960s, and there were a number of things some schools offered back then-- a small "carfare" and cleaning stipend (something like $60 a month back then), and there were also paid apprentice programs in certain fields. I don't know the history of why the stipend was eliminated--- seems like in might be a good idea to have the option to give student athletes $150-$200 a month for incidental expenses. But then again, I'm sure there was a reason it was discontinued.

  • spartucusjones profile image

    CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

    Very interesting hub and very well explained. I mostly agree, but I do have one question I want to ask because it wasn't address in your hub. I remember reading a Sports Illustrated article on this subject years ago, and one of the arguments they brought up in favor of athletes being paid is that US college athletes are not allowed to have part time jobs. Is that the case? If so I can understand why an argument might be made for a small reimbursement of certain expenses.

    The other argument that the article made, is that many recruiters were engaging in questionable recruiting practices that bordered on offering payments. So the argument was that having a pay structure could cut down on some of those practices. I don't totally buy that argument, because I think any system you have in place is going to encourage unethical recruiting practices that would favor bigger schools.

    Once again, I enjoyed reading this hub, your arguments were well presented.

  • rfmoran profile image

    Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

    Ib - If memory serves me I believe that the average student attendance at football games at Hofstra was about 50. That was a program that had to be killed because it was dying already.

  • ib radmasters profile image

    ib radmasters 4 years ago from Southern California

    Russ

    I was shocked when I first heard that Hostra which I had always known for its football, gave it up.

    It would be like St Johns giving up basketball.

    Or Stony Brook giving up engineering.

    I don't know about the rest of the country, but UCLA and USC didn't take that path.

  • rfmoran profile image

    Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

    I totally agree. It would create a semi pro institution in places where learning is supposed to occur. voted up and interesting