Opinion: The case for paying college athletes

Fiona Harrigan

These past few months, the American sporting landscape has turned upside down. The NBA and NHL are now navigating postseasons in bubbles, keeping players from their families for months. Professional athletes have committed to the new normal, their difficulties cushioned by a love for their sports and by their exorbitant paychecks. But what about the college athletes who have no such financial benefits?

College players are beginning to use their leverage against the multi-billion dollar college sports industry that can’t survive without them. They’re calling for eligibility extensions, campus support services and access to medical treatment. But given this priceless opportunity for reform, they should go further and demand an end to bans on player compensation. And the NCAA should listen.

In 2018, the Department of Education reported that college sports programs collected $14 billion in revenue. Historically, student athletes have only received the crumbs of that massive income. According to a 2019 report, NCAA schools spent $986 million on athletic scholarships every year –– averaging out to about $22,000 for each of the 45,000 athletes represented. Conversely, $1.2 billion was divided among 4,400 coaches, coming out to an average annual salary of $273,000.

College players are beginning to use their leverage against the multi-billion dollar college sports industry that can’t survive without them, Harrigan writes.

Worse than this, the NCAA bars students from accepting endorsement deals. For daring to use their own name, image and likeness to their advantage, athletes risk being deemed ineligible for play. Meanwhile, experts predict that the most recognizable college stars could make up to $250,000 per national ad campaign, with five-figure deals available to less popular, but locally known, players. 

So what’s the hang-up? 

The NCAA is somehow deluded that its athletes are still students first, ignoring the “big-timeazation” of college sports that’s taken place in the past few decades. Academic requirements supposedly separate college athletes from professional players, but college athletes simply don’t have time to attend class, given their constant training, workouts and travel to out-of-state games. Scandals have rocked athletic programs again and again and again as players try to stay academically eligible, bringing shame to schools and teams alike. 

That’s hardly surprising, given our mistaken view that college athletes can have it both ways. Josh Rosen, UCLA quarterback and a first-round NFL draft pick in 2018, rightfully said, “Look, football and school don’t go together ... Trying to do both is like trying to do two full-time jobs.”

Indeed, the average Division 1 athlete devoted 34 hours per week on athletically related activities during the season, according to a 2016 NCAA study. Though the NCAA says athletes can’t spend more than 20 hours per week on athletics, there’s no enforcement mechanism. 

And perhaps there shouldn’t be. It’s clear that the NCAA’s collegiate model is failing athletes academically, but what it could do is provide an opportunity to train for a professional sporting career. 

Critics cry that under 2% of college athletes will go pro. This, they say, proves the need for academics. But academic programs are clearly inadequate. Payment would be more helpful. Players could face the slim odds of going pro with a monetary promise to soften their risk –– and if they found that the trade-off wasn’t worth it, they could choose academics over athletics. 

Thankfully, legislative efforts are already in the works. On Aug. 13, a group of senators announced their “College Athletes Bill of Rights,” which would revolutionize athlete pay. And last year, California passed landmark legislation that would allow college athletes to profit from their name, image or likeness. Set to take effect in 2023, California’s bill has inspired New York, Colorado, South Carolina and Michigan to consider similar measures. 

The tide is turning –– two-thirds of Americans surveyed this year supported endorsement money for college players. We’ve finally begun to see these athletes as quasi-professionals. The NCAA needs to follow suit. As the association entertains new regulations for the COVID-19 era of college sports, it can finally do right by the people who keep the system alive. 

Fiona Harrigan is an associate contributor for Young Voices and a research assistant for the American Institute for Economic Research.