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Are Scholarships Sufficient Payment for College Athletes?

Updated on May 3, 2014
Larry Rankin profile image

Larry Rankin is a sports analyst with an especially strong penchant for statistical breakdowns.

As a fan, you go to a football game at Wisconsin or Alabama or USC or any of a number of major college sporting venues to experience a hustle and bustle and spirit unlike any other in the sports world, but take your sports fan glasses off and what do you see? Look real hard, now. Is the answer mob mentality, vicarious fantasy, alcohol abuse? Well, yeah, but those are other topics for other days. The answer I was looking for is money, tons and tons of it changing hands for everything from overpriced novelties to artery clogging treats, college football is big business, or is it?

Now for the proverbial hornet’s nest, the topic that college football purest like myself try so hard to avoid, should college athletes be paid? First point of order, do you want your college football to change? The answer for most of us is no. We don’t like new rules that discourage players from hitting, we certainly don’t want the spirit of our sport tainted by filthy lucre because college football is a different animal than the NFL. And it is, but don’t kid yourselves, even if the corporate purposes of the NFL vary from those of a public learning institution, money is a driving force in some college sports and has been for quite some time now.

What Place does the Almighty Dollar have in College Sports?
What Place does the Almighty Dollar have in College Sports? | Source
Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform (Sport and Society)
Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform (Sport and Society)
A good book for if you'd like to read more on pay for play

Should Colleges Pay Student Athletes a Salary?

So how do we handle this “situation” that has become such a hot topic in recent years and doesn’t seem to be going away? Well, let’s start by looking at it from the standpoint that it has already been handled and some people just don’t realize it yet. The cost of tuition, room, and board varies widely dependent on geographical region and type of institution, but a good estimate is around $32,000 a year. The average income of an employee without a college degree, which is the category college athletes fall into, is around $30,000 annually. Sound fair? Depends who you talk to, but let’s look further.

In addition, student athletes have the opportunity to travel the United States more than the average person. Albeit “business” related travel, it is still a nice perk to get to see the United States. On top of that, student athletes get some personal travel expenses and clothing expenses taken care of through a stipend check, though it is a very humbling amount.

Also, one of my biggest peeves in this whole pay-for-play debate is that the college education provided by the school is only seen in its 4 or 5 year monetary value. Believe it or not, a good percentage of college athletes take advantage of the opportunity to get an education, especially in non-marquee sports, but even if we look at the premiere sport at most colleges, football, a reasonable amount of these athletes take advantage of the free education.

The Rose Bowl Seats Over 100,000 Paying Fans.
The Rose Bowl Seats Over 100,000 Paying Fans. | Source

Value of a Scholarship

The thing about a college degree is that it isn’t just the matter of how much it costs to get; it’s actually an investment in the future. If you’re a full-ride scholarship athlete, basically the college has made a $128,000 to $160,000 investment for you and in turn allows you to reap all the benefits of this investment. Yes, the college may recoup their investment and a bit on top of it through overall sports revenue, but isn’t that the idea of any business, to make an overall return above production costs? If you look at the majority of employees (not the head brass) at say a Fortune 500 business and look at the student athletes at all the FBS schools, I think that you’ll find the overall value of what the athletes are given exceeds that of which the majority of Fortune 500 company workers are paid.

Let’s look at it like this, the average person without a college degree who works 25 years can expect to make around $800,000 over his or her lifetime. A college football player who gets some college credit and doesn’t make the NFL can expect to make around $1,000,000 over the same 25 year period, a $200,000 pay bump. A college football player who gets his degree and doesn’t make the NFL can expect to make around $1.3 million over the same time-span, a $500,000 increase over the individual who doesn’t have the opportunity to go to college. These are not insane financial increases, but do you not think an extra 500K will make a difference in quality of life over the course of a lifetime?

Now let’s look at the long odds, the sucker bet. If a college football player (I use college football because it is one of the few college sports that often generates revenue.) makes an NFL squad, an accomplishment he has well less than a 10% chance of achieving as a scholar athlete at an FBS division school, he can expect to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $800,000 a year over the course of 3.5 years.

Average Career Earnings

Average 25 Year Earnings No College Education
Average 25 Year Earnings Some College Education
Average 25 Year Earnings Bachelor's Degree
Average NFL Career Earnings

Do these numbers sound low? Well, the true average salary of an NFL player is around $1.9 million, but if we throw out the anomalies, like Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flaaco, etc. and factor in money lost to downtime and various other reasons, we get the more plausible median salary of $800,000. As for the 3.5 year career, that is the average career length, plain and simple.

So if you make the NFL, and that’s a big if, and if you are able to hang around for 3.5 years and if you make the median salary, you can expect to make around $2.8 million over your career. Well, at least you still have your college education to fall back on after your 3.5 years are done. This is good, because if you’re anything like most young males who are given large sums of money all at once, you’ve probably blown through most of that 2.8 million already.

The point is that the pay bump from your college education, though a lesser amount than if you make the NFL, is a lot less tentative. You have money making potential over a much longer period of time, and if you blow out your knee, you can still keep right on sitting behind that desk and making $50,000 a year.

Also, the pay scale is comparable in the NFL and college athletics when you factor in the number of athletes employed and profit levels. For example, the NFL only employs around 1,700 athletes and makes substantially more profit than any American sport. Players can expect to make about $800,000 a year over less than a 4 year window. College athletics “employ” tens of thousands of athletes and makes far less money than the NFL, yet athletes given a full-ride that take advantage of the opportunity given receive a lifelong value of over $600,000 (cost of education + additional earning power) for their 4 year’s effort.

Yes, NFL players are paid more, but if we view each as a business, I think you’ll find that the NCAA actually “pays” their athletes more than the NFL if we view payment proportionate to number of employees and profit margin.

What is the Value of a College Education?
What is the Value of a College Education? | Source


Should Colleges Pay Athletes a Salary Beyond a Free Education?

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I know it’s hard for many of us to wrap our heads around the concept that what college athletes are given is fair when we see all the money that some major college football programs are pulling in each week, but when we factor in potential earnings of the students, cost of educating the students, average profit margins of NCAA sports programs as a whole, cost of running a university, how much less elite it is to be a college athlete than a pro, and even the difference in the motive of business practices of a university versus a real world corporation, the current value of what student athletes are given is fair if not more than fair.

College Athletics Have a Unique Energy.
College Athletics Have a Unique Energy. | Source

Author's Final Notes

I will be visiting the topic of pay-for-play in the article to come, "What Would be the Impact of Pay-For-Play on College Sports?" This article has covered but one facet in a multifaceted topic. I really think college athletics have things right with the scholarship program, but I by no means think they are without fault. There is one aspect of college athletics’ practices I believe to be borderline criminal, and I will be exploring that aspect, along with many others, in the subsequent article.

If you are interested in this topic or other sports articles, be sure to continue to checkout Larry Rankin either by clicking my profile in the top right-hand corner of the page or going to and typing Larry Rankin in on the search.

One more note: I look forward to your comments on this issue. I certainly don’t mind you disagreeing with my analysis, as long as you make your arguments in a civil manner. This is a hot topic, and it is natural to not agree on all aspects.


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