Paying College Athletes? I Think Not

In early October 2016, The United States Supreme Court refused to hear the NCAA appeal of the Ed O’Bannon case. This ruling leaves the lower court ruling in place that amateurism rules for big time college basketball and football players violated federal antitrust laws. The Supreme Court was right not to hear the case; student athletes should not be paid beyond scholarships because economically it does not make sense and a host of other issues would be created with a change in policy.

In the original case, Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player, filed a lawsuit on behalf of NCAA Division I men’s football and basketball players. He challenged the use of images of former student athletes for commercial purposes. O’Bannon believed that upon graduation, student athletes should receive financial compensation for NCAA commercial uses of his or her image. In June 2013, a District Judge ruled that the NCAA regulations were an unreasonable restrain of trade, and therefore violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. This district Judge believed universities should pay their athletes up to the cost of attendance and $5,000 a year. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals did not fully agree with the prior verdict and revoked the need for universities to pay their football and basketball players up to $5,000 a year for name, image and likeness rights but did believe universities should pay up to the cost of attendance. This case and many similar cases bring up the question of whether student athletes should be paid.

There are many reasons why college athletes should not be paid, but first and foremost are the economic repercussions. Even though the idea of getting paid a salary may excite some college athletes, after taxes the amount of salary v. scholarship is not much different. John Thelin of Time Magazine uses an example to show the subtle difference between scholarships and salaries. Say a Division I basketball player is given an $100,000 salary instead of a $65,000 scholarship to a private university that includes, room and board, books, and cost of attendance. With a salary all the sudden federal and state taxes are deducted along with social security and depending on the state, payroll tax. These taxes in total amount to around $34,900, leaving $65,100 left of the original salary. That leaves only an extra $100 dollars in the student athlete’s pocket after paying for college expenses. Meanwhile, universities would have to fork over an extra $35,000 per student to give an extra $100 of spending power.

It is also important to consider that college athletes get paid enough just through scholarships and athlete benefits. I myself am a college athlete and I reap the benefits of having free tutors and highly quality strength and conditioning coaches among other benefits. The money that athletic programs make off marketing student athletes is what pays for these benefits. It is important to understand that although student athletes might not be dealing with the money directly, most of the revenue goes into new facilities and scholarship funds. Most importantly, college athletes are given the opportunity to represent their schools and continue playing the sport they love. If giving money to athletes was based on revenue instead of scholarships it would have a detrimental effect on less moneymaking sports, women’s sports, and could even end in sports being cut because of increased costs. Paying based on revenue would practically eliminate the recruiting process and create one dominant conference with a handful of dominant teams. It would be impossible for smaller schools to bring in high quality athletes if they were offered much larger salaries elsewhere. College athletes who receive scholarships are able to walk into some exceptional schools and come out debt free. Why can’t that be payment enough?

A system with salaries would also completely change the team dynamic. Members of the team would need an agent to manage their contract. Disputes would arise between teammates over signing bonus given to one player over another. There would be constant disputes between teammates, which happens often in the NFL. At least at the NFL level one would hope that the athletes have a greater lever of maturity than say a college freshman. Salaries would also give an enormous amount of money to an eighteen year old without knowing whether they have the support system to help them make good choices. Team dynamics would further shift from athletes playing for the name on the front of the jersey to playing for the one on the back. The sense of team camaraderie would be broken by players purely focusing on how to promote their personal brand instead of their universities.

The effect on high school athletes would also be extremely detrimental. Many high school athletes already face lots of pressure from their parents to perform but if salaries were given out the pressure would be even greater. High school athletes with parents struggling financially would push themselves more and more to receive a higher salary to alleviate their parents stress. With this increased pressure comes the problem of performance enhancing drugs as the pressure to preform becomes too much. High School athletes already feel pressure to receive a scholarship to a top school but creating salaries for college athletes would increase this feeling of pressure.

Although I can understand that the amount of money universities are able to make off marketing student athletes is not fair, salaries are not the appropriate fix. Economically salaries don’t make sense, they send the wrong message to high school students, and in the end they would detrimentally affect college athletics. As a division I athlete I believe that the ability to receive an athletic scholarships and other benefits is payment enough to be able to continue playing the sport I love.

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