Is it Time for College Athletes to Get Paid to Play Big-Time Sports?



March Madness is in full swing. Coaches are continuously changing schools for bigger paydays. Licensed merchandise sales reach record levels every year. It seems everyone is making money except for those doing most of the sweating. Should that change?  Should we start paying college athletes for their services?

This is a particularly sensitive issue in our community. Nearly 80 percent of Division I basketball players are African American. Yet the majority of those making the real money: coaches, administrators, advertisers, television personnel, and arena managers are White.

We’ve all heard the old refrain that players receive tuition, books, room and board, and, in some cases, expense money as compensation for their skills. Is it enough? And what are the consequences if we start paying college athletes?

The case can be made that most student athletes are playing non-revenue or low-revenue sports for the love of the game and that there is little or no professional opportunity in sports like lacrosse, softball, rowing, women’s soccer, wrestling, and volleyball. These sports can easily be justified as part of the fabric of university life in much the same way scholarships and stipends for choral groups and actors in school plays are justified.  

Football and men’s basketball are different. According to Forbes Magazine, these two sports are essentially professional operations, generating annual revenue in excess of $6 billion—more than the National Basketball Association.

Former University of Michigan president James Duderstadt told New York Times columnist Joe Nocera: “Most sports can be justified as part of what a university does. But big-time football and men’s basketball are clearly commercial entertainment and have been pulled away from the fundamental purpose of a university.”

Players are smart. They see 20,000 fans at a basketball game or 70,000 at a football game. They notice jerseys with their names on them in the bookstore and online. They see their coach driving a Mercedes and living in a mansion. It’s only natural to think that some of that should be going to them.

Consider the inner-city player matriculating at a big state university like Indiana or North Carolina. Do they have the clothes, the shoes, or even the money for dates that their classmates might have? Paying college athletes might curb some of that resentment and compensate them for the revenue they are producing for the university.

And it’s not just receiving a salary. Today, allowing the coach to buy an athlete a Happy Meal is an NCAA violation. Big time college athletes should be allowed to endorse shoes, cars, burgers, clothing and whatever else they can generate through free-market capitalism. We know the adults around them are doing exactly that.

Sure, there are those who say that paying college athletes would remove some of the aura of college sports. That somehow receiving a check would mean that players are playing for something other than the honor of ol’ State U.

Here’s a news flash, the college athlete experience is nothing like the typical student experience.  The athletes work 50 hours a week at their sport, are beholden to their head coach for the continuation of their annually-renewable scholarship, and in most cases don’t have the time or remaining energy to attempt challenging coursework in-season.

Maybe paying college athletes to play big time college sports might affect illusions held by some alumni, but that’s the nature of illusions…they are figments of one’s imagination.

No, paying college athletes in big-time, revenue producing sports is an idea whose time has long-past come. Those owning cotton fields in the 21st century have to pay their workers. College athletic departments should do the same.

Hirsch is a contributing writer for Regal Magazine, a publication dedicated to the African American community.

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