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Pay to Play: Should College Athletes Be Paid?

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March 23, 2005

Pay To Play: Should College Athletes Be Paid?

Does it make sense for an academic institution to run a multimillion dollar entertainment business, which is what college football and college basketball have become? Does it make sense for these institutions to pay the student-athletes who participate in these football and basketball programs?

The reality is that college sports programs, namely the "big name" programs such as football and basketball programs at marquee schools, are businesses that stand to make a large amount of money for their respective schools. According to an article in the Harvard Journal on Legislation, "[i]n the past twelve years, the amount of money generated by these two sports has increased nearly 300%, such that they now fund almost all other sports programs. 41 Harv. J. on Legis. 319. The student-athletes who participate in these programs are part of the reason why these schools stand to make such handsome profits: through ticket sales, endorsement deals, broadcasting deals, and jersey sales (although player names cannot be represented on jerseys), among other things.

Mark Murphy, Director of Athletics at Northwestern University, who participated in an ESPN debate on the topic of paying student-athletes, argues that these athletes currently receive scholarships, whose value, in some instances, totals close to $200,000 over four years. He stated that all student-athletes have made similar commitments to the schools, and that football and basketball players should not be treated any different than other athletes, who participate in sports that are not as popular and lucrative. Paying athletes anything beyond a scholarship, argues Murphy, would cause problems, particularly from a gender equity standpoint. What Murphy seems to referring to when he says "gender equity" is Title IX federal regulations, which cut off federal funding of colleges if those colleges discriminate on the basis of sex. Paying male student athletes more than female student-athletes could possibly be construed as discrimination.

However, others argue that these athletes are producing revenues not only for the schools, which gives these students scholarships, but also for shoe companies, television networks, and the conference in which these schools belong. Moreover, the equity problem could obviously be solved if all collegiate athletes get paid the same base salary for their participation.

There are also student-athletes who have to leave school early because they do not have enough money to continue, or to pay their bills and leaving school for a career in professional sports is an easy way of making money. The argument is that if student-athletes get paid, they will remain in school and complete their education.

But, is money such a big problem for these student-athletes? Don't they receive scholarships? How much more money do they need? The truth is that "full" scholarships do not always entirely cover tuition and cost of living. However, these students can still do what a majority of students do, which is to get loans. Still, some of these student-athletes do not qualify for such loans, so there is still a gap between the money they get and the total cost of attendance. This gap,coupled with the fact that football and basketball players help generate so much revenue, has caused some intercollegiate teams to provide their athletes with extra compensation, which is in direct violation of NCAA bylaws. 41 Harv. J. on Legis. 319.

Perhaps creating a method of payment above and beyond scholarships would help to decrease the amount of corruption, and "under the table" activities of some of these nationally recognized sports programs. But creating such a system may also lead to other problems. Developing such an economy in college football and basketball would result in a monetary race to buy the best athletes in the country. This would lead to a significant gap in talent between rich schools and poor schools. The disparity would result in a lack of competition, and may result in "Cinderella" teams becoming a thing of the past. The more the disparity, the less the competition, and the less the competition, the less excitement. Less excitement will result in less revenue, and less revenue means less money for collegiate programs other than basketball and football. Ultimately, however, the main concern with paying athletes should not be one of establishing competitive balance and preserving "Cinderella" teams.

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