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What Would be the Impact of Pay-For-Play on College Sports?

Updated on May 3, 2014
Larry Rankin profile image

Larry Rankin analyzes sports, with an especially strong penchant for statistical breakdowns.

Major professional sports have the top athletes playing at the most elite level. They have multi-million dollar contracts, prestige, and the aura of rock star players living rock star lives, and I love them for it, but if push comes to shove, I’ll take college sports over pro more times than not, and I’m not alone in this. Why? There is a certain purity and energy you see in college sports that doesn’t exist on the professional level.

Talent levels are far more diverse in college, making upset victories that much more inspiring. Take the worst team in the NFL and pit them against the best team in the league, and it is surprising when the worst team wins, but not spellbinding, because even the NFL’s worst team is only a few big plays worse than the best. But when Virginia Tech gets beat by James Madison, an FCS school, now that’s a head-scratcher. How does a team that should by all accounts have vastly inferior talent beat a perennial powerhouse? Answer: the magic that is college football.

In addition, there’s the diversity of names and faces. With 125 teams and more than 80 players on every roster, there is always something new to learn, compared to the NFL, a 32 team league with 53 player rosters. Regardless of which you like better, the NFL and College football are different animals with different energies, but recent outcry has been to make them more the same. I am talking about pay-for-play college sports. In this article we will be looking at three paradigms for paying college athletes and how they might impact the game we love.

Greed vs. Prosperity
Greed vs. Prosperity | Source

Scenario 1: The Colleges Should Pay Their Players

Many colleges make lots of money in a sport, usually football. Some colleges even make money in multiple sports. When this is the case, it is usually football and men’s basketball. The problem is that most sports in a college sports program lose money.

So we could just pay scholarship players in sports that make money? The problem with this is not just that NCAA regulations would need to be totally re-thought or abandoned. This actually could be done fairly easily. The problem is in the amendment or reinterpretation of laws like Title IX which require fair and comparable treatment as well as comparable opportunity for all student athletes of federally funded institutions.

For example, as things are now, if you pay the senior quarterback of the National Championship football team $1,000 a year you have to pay the senior backup goalie for the girl’s hockey team the same amount, assuming she is on scholarship. Funny enough, that is exactly what is done. They are called stipends and they are given to all players on scholarship to help counter costs like clothing and travel.

Stipends given are usually a very humbling amount, and actually can vary a bit dependent on class. In other words, if you give $800 a year to a freshman on scholarship, then all freshmen on an equivalent scholarship have to receive the same $800. If you give a senior athlete a $1,500 stipend a year, than all other senior athletes on an equivalent scholarship are to receive $1,500 a year.

The stipend program is not what people are usually talking about when they talk about pay-for-play college sports. The stipend is simply an allotment of cash for day-to-day survival. It could be increased and maybe should be increased, but what people are talking about when they mention pay-for-play is more along the lines of students being paid for their individual worth, as is done in a corporation: Jimmy makes a big sale, so his salary is increased by $3,000, Billy catches the game winning pass in a crucial game, so his salary is upped $1,000, that sort of thing. So let’s say we could incorporate a pay-for-play system like this. What would be the result?

NCAA Rules are Easily Changed or Abandoned.
NCAA Rules are Easily Changed or Abandoned. | Source

How Universities Directly Paying Players Would Impact College Sports:

Assuming you were able to abandon the NCAA, form a new regulatory committee, and circumvent a number of laws, Title IX most notably, the first thing that would happen is a mass exodus of college teams. Let’s use college football as the primary example, because it is the main money sport. As things are, there are 125 college football teams at the FBS level. Maybe 60 could survive in a corporate structure, probably less. Sound low? For every Texas and Oklahoma, there is a Rice, Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, etc. These schools don’t make a substantial gain on their athletic programs. They can’t pay players. Don’t believe me? Go to a sporting event at your closest non-marquee college.

So we have roughly 60 colleges now in the preeminent college football league. What’s next? Since college sports aren’t college sports any more but corporate sports, we have to trim the fat just like a corporation would. We get rid of all unprofitable sports. So that niece of yours who is getting a free education for playing softball at a major university, she has to come home now and work at the General Dollar Store.

What about these 80+ team rosters in football? Gone. Instead we are moving to the much more profitable 53 man roster. No more Rudy Ruettigers walking-on the team and taking up space. Every helmet costs money.

Before too long, we don’t have a recognizable college sports system anymore, all the tradition a mere remnant of what it used to be. This probably wouldn’t happen overnight, but once the floodgates of this style of pay-for-play college sports were opened, this is a likely scenario of where the road would eventually lead us.

Federal Laws like Title IX would need to be changed in order for schools to pay players, a tall order.
Federal Laws like Title IX would need to be changed in order for schools to pay players, a tall order. | Source

Scenario 2: Professional Football Preparatory League

Another route to go is to leave the college sports system intact as it is and start a professional football preparatory league as an additional option for young athletes. First we would need a number of very wealthy investors to start a pro league for top level athletes between 18 and 22 years old. This system would work like the minor leagues in baseball. For example, highly touted baseball players have the option to go pro straight out of high school or pursue a degree through scholarship and play in college.

The NFL doesn’t allow players to play in their league unless they are at least 3 years removed from high school. Most recently former standout college running back Maurice Clarett challenged this notion as being unconstitutional. He eventually lost this suit. Like any other job, the NFL has the right to have reasonable prerequisites to employment. In addition, there are some fundamental reasons why you don’t want 18 year olds playing in the NFL. Primarily, football is a violent sport and most individuals are not completely developed by the age of 18. Pitting teenagers against fully developed men can constitute an added risk to the physical well-being of youthful talent. In comparison, basketball is not quite as violent of a sport and the NBA only requires one year of post-high school development.

If a preparatory league were developed, they wouldn’t have to have the same criteria set forth by the NFL for two reasons: at 18 you are legally an adult, and since the players would be playing with talent of comparable age, there wouldn’t be any additional risk to the athletes. But the investors would need to be able to sustain this investment for the long haul. Because of the popularity of college sports, this league would initially be vilified for poaching top talent from the college ranks.

Like any business, if the investors had deep enough pockets and produced a product of quality, a preparatory league would eventually succeed.

Most pro football leagues don't have the financial backing to succeed.
Most pro football leagues don't have the financial backing to succeed. | Source

How a Preparatory League Would Impact College Sports:

The effects of a preparatory league on college football are obvious because the paradigm already exists in college baseball and to a lesser degree in college basketball. It makes college sports more watered down and less entertaining.

College baseball is a quality, entertaining sport, but it isn’t a major draw at most colleges because everyone knows the majority of major talent goes straight to the pros or can leave at any time. College basketball is a very entertaining sport, but with the one and done rule, everyone knows that if you are watching a high-quality athlete one year, chances are you won’t see him again. In addition, talent is watered down in these leagues.

If there were a pro football preparatory league, the results would be the same. The majority of top talent would opt for money now rather than education. Players that were not highly recruited but proved to be talented in college would leave the college ranks as soon as they could get into the preparatory league. The college sports system would see reduced profits and eventually have to curtail the scope of their athletic programs.

Scenario 3: Let College Athletes Endorse Products

If you get an academic scholarship to pursue a business degree, do they tell you what jobs you can and cannot have on the side? Do they tell you that while you’re learning about business you can’t pursue business opportunities on your own? Do they tell you that you can’t employ an agent to help with your career? Do they tell you that by attending their college you have forfeited the right to make money? Of course not! So why on earth are college athletes denied these rights?

As a college athlete you can only be employed where the NCAA says you can. You cannot discuss your future with experienced agents. You can’t spend unauthorized time with professional athletes. You cannot make money on your likeness and image while others are allowed to. You can’t do any number of things that seem to be rights promised to us in a free society.

In my previous article, “Are Scholarships Sufficient Payment for College Athletes?” I discussed how I believed a college education to be more than fair compensation for a college athlete, and it is, but what isn’t fair, possibly even criminal, is telling these athletes that they have to put their hopes of additional financial prosperity on hold until they graduate. Allowing players to pursue endorsements is by far the most viable, sustainable, and profitable means of eliminating the pay-for-play argument. Just allow the market to bear what the market will bear.

Most colleges can’t afford to pay their athletes beyond scholarships, and those that can, can’t do so within the confines of equality laws for federally funded institutions. So just let college athletes pursue endorsements. Athletes who play well in popular sports will make buckets of money from various corporations, and those who don’t will not. This money will be accrued totally independent of the college institution.

Autograph shows, billboards, commercials, merchandizing, there are any number of ways for young athletes to earn money through endorsements.
Autograph shows, billboards, commercials, merchandizing, there are any number of ways for young athletes to earn money through endorsements. | Source

Pay-For-Play

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How an Endorsement Program Would Impact College Sports:

As with any scenario, there are a few kinks to be worked out, but for the most part, college sports would remain college sports. Baseball and men’s basketball would probably become more profitable because with an opportunity to make money, more players would stay and the product would be of higher quality. Non-profitable sports athletes would be largely unaffected, besides the boon of the occasional endorsement.

Just look at what the Olympics have done. They made the switch to endorsements a long time ago, and the overall effect can only be described as successful. Big time athletes get the pleasure of making large sums of money and lesser athletes make what they make and still have the opportunity to fulfill their dreams.

There are some problems to address, like what can be endorsed. The college should retain the right to exclude players endorsing products they believe reflect badly on their institution, as is true in pro sports and about any business, and since the student has an obligation to set aside reasonable time for studies, because they are on scholarship, limitations on when and how many endorsement projects the athlete takes part in should also be put in place.

Perhaps the biggest problem with a system like this is the creation of an unfair advantage. For example, a college like USC, located in a huge market, has an advantage over Wisconsin, located in a tiny market. As a result, premier institutions located in large cities may end up recruiting the top level athletes. You could also run into problems with billionaire boosters. For example, what if Phil Knight promises to give a Nike endorsement to any athlete signing with Oregon? If talent disparities become too lopsided, it is bad for the college sports brand.

But I believe these problems can be hashed out to a fair end. With fine-tuning, the endorsement paradigm is by far the best pay-for-play route to go.


Once money enters the equation, will college sports ever be the same?
Once money enters the equation, will college sports ever be the same? | Source

Final Comments:

I don’t want college sports to change, but I believe they will. I’m comfortable with the way things are, but I also believe it is wrong to tell any person they are not allowed to make money. An eventual pay-for-play system is inevitable, and the only such system that doesn’t completely destroy college sports as we know them is the endorsement system.

When money is entered into the mix, is a purity and innocence lost? Yes, but if the market will bear it, then these youngsters have the right to earn it.

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