College Athletes Should Get Paid

One of the hotter topics this spring in college athletics has been whether college athletes should get paid. What many people have quietly called for and coaches have secretly long-supported is now being discussed among some of the movers and shakers of college sports. I know there are many arguments against paying student athletes, and honestly, for a long time I was a big supporter of not paying student athletes. But, after thinking about the issues, a number of which I will discuss below, my opinion has changed. While I don’t believe schools will begin paying players anytime soon, I do believe student athletes at all schools should receive a stipend of $3,000-5,000 in addition to their scholarship in order to help cover the true cost of living and allow athletes to participate in the financial success they are helping to generate.

Paying student athletes will cheapen college athletics

This was a position I long held. In my mind, paying student athletes was synonymous with turning college athletes who are playing for the love of the game and the opportunity to make it to the next level into greedy, money-driven players who look to just collect a paycheck and go home. However, at the modest stipend I am proposing, I don’t believe there will be any radical transformation in the attitudes of student athletes. We are talking about adding an extra few thousand dollars for students to pay bills, go to the movies, take their girlfriends out on a date, etc, not splurge on a car or expensive jewelry. Athletes in high-revenue generating sports such as football and basketball will still play hard for the opportunity to get drafted and play as professionals. Furthermore, many student athletes play sports where going pro is not a particularly lucrative option. These athletes play their respective sports for the love of the game, and not to make millions. I don’t see this changing with the addition of a modest stipend.

Instituting a stipend likely won't curb the kind of pay-to-play schemes Cam Newton was a part of

Paying students even a modest sum will further open the door to bidding wars amongst schools to attract talent

This is stance espoused by ESPN’s Skip Bayless. He argues that there is no way to police boosters and alumni from adding a little extra to the stipend, i.e., if a school will give you $5,000, the booster can offer another $5,000 to entice you to choose their school over another. I disagree primarily because these bidding wars already happen, they likely happen for sums far greater than $5,000 (see Cam Newton), and no one really seems to be able to regulate the influence of boosters and alumni on players today. Many student athletes, particularly those that play football and basketball, the sports with the greatest amount of “outside fund flows,” come from very modest economic backgrounds, and financial pressures can cause them to make decisions in violation of NCAA rules. I will concede that paying student athletes a stipend on top of their scholarship won’t eliminate the flow of under-the-table funds, but I do believe it will help curb students from accepting money out of need.

If you start paying players from one sport, you have to pay players from all sports equally

Fact, kind of. All student athletes should get paid; however, I believe athletes from higher revenue-generating sports should get paid more. I’m not sure what the right answer is, but one idea that makes sense to me is paying all student athletes a flat rate, for example, $3,000. Athletes playing sports that are self-sustaining will get paid a little extra, perhaps a percentage of operating profit that will be split equitably among all players with a hard cap of $5,000. This idea satisfies two important criteria: first, it covers a basic stipend for all student athletes; second, it rewards athletes playing the cash-cow sports at their respective schools. This would cater to traditional programs such as USC football and Duke basketball, but would also include less-nationally recognized sports such as lacrosse at Johns Hopkins.

Is it fair to pay student athletes more than just a scholarship when so many regular students will never receive such treatment?

This is a much trickier question to answer, and quite honestly, I’m not sure if I have a strong view yet. As of now, I believe it does make sense for a couple reasons.

  1. First, the education regular students receive will in general never generate a payoff to the academic institution, while the play of student athletes yields revenues to the school immediately.
  2. Second, as far as I understand it, student athletes are not allowed to hold jobs while they are athletes. This cuts into the potential earning power of student athletes, while regular students can hold one or more jobs to make extra money.
  3. Third, it is, in many ways in the best interest of student athletes. Many athletes, particularly those in the highest revenue-generating sports, come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and are often in positions to make the “wrong” decision and accept money and gifts they shouldn’t. As I mentioned before, the stipend I am proposing is intended to alleviate some of the financial burden of living expenses. There will always be athletes that will accept gifts and money in excess of what is necessary, but the stipend is intended to steer students away from making compromising decisions because they have no other financial alternative. Perhaps this is not the most compelling philosophical reason to institute a stipend, but it is a reality that has to be taken into consideration.

At the end of the day, the question of paying student athletes is an incredibly nuanced one to answer. I have touched upon some of the key issues above, but there are many other issues I did not discuss. Furthermore, it is extremely important to find the right system for implementing these stipends. The inertia required to change a system once it’s in place could be even greater than the movement required to start paying players.

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