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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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