Should College Athletes Be Paid?
On a train ride along Lake Winnipesaukee in late summer of 1852, the bowman of Yale University’s rowing club struck up a conversation with wealthy businessman, James Elkins. Elkins had recently invested money into land around the lake and was looking to make the area a tourist destination.
“If you will get up a regatta on the lake between Yale and Harvard, I will pay all the bills,” dared Elkins. The bowman got right on it and soon Yale convinced Harvard it was a great idea. The event was heavily advertised, professional non-student rowers were secretly hired by both teams in the hopes of gaining a competitive advantage, and on August 3, 1852, one-thousand cheering spectators witnessed the first American intercollegiate athletic competition (R. Johnson 2–3).
By the beginning of the 20th century, intercollegiate athletics had become an integral part of most colleges and universities. However, a number of football-related deaths and injuries along with the ever-increasing commercialization of athletic events caused the federal government and many university administrators to begin questioning the future of intercollegiate athletics. There was widespread agreement that regulation was needed or else intercollegiate competition was headed for abolishment. Thus, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association (IAA) was established in 1906 and renamed the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in 1910, to formulate rules that could be applied to the various intercollegiate sports (Smith 10–12).
Public interest in sports at the intercollegiate level continued to grow over the next several decades. By the 1950s most Americans had a television in their home and the number of televised college sporting events was increasing, leading to a rise in demand. Teams were feeling increased pressure to win, contributing to many athletes playing injured, and eventually the NCAA found itself being sued by current and former injured players. Players argued that they should receive worker’s compensation benefits for their injuries, but the NCAA found success in these lawsuits using the “student-athlete” defense.
The NCAA argued that college athletes were not employees of a university, but rather amateur student-athletes whom they defined as “one who engaged in athletics for the education, physical, mental, and social benefits he derives therefrom, and to whom athletics is an avocation” (Solomon 3–4). Over the course of the next several decades, the courts unilaterally agreed with the NCAA and held that student-athletes are not employees and any compensation they receive should be tied to their education and limited to the cost of tuition.
Compensation rates for student-athletes have remained fairly constant over the decades, rising only due to increases in tuition costs. On the other hand, the revenue generated from college sports has increased exponentially in recent years, mainly as a result of lucrative television broadcasting rights (Sanderson and Siegfried 119). This financial windfall has served to line the pocketbooks of college coaches, athletic directors, and NCAA administrators while student-athletes have been seemingly left in the dust in a monetary sense (Sanderson and Siegfried 115). This financial inequity has generated increasing controversy and debate over whether or not the NCAA rules regarding student-athlete compensation need to be changed to allow compensation in excess of tuition.
However, the question is not as simple as “should college athletes be paid or not”? It is a multi-faceted issue which requires a deeper inquiry into questions such as: Why do athletes choose to attend college? Does the lack of alternatives available to high school graduates prior to their professional sports eligibility constitute a monopsony for the NCAA in violation of federal antitrust laws? Is maintaining amateurism in college athletics a necessary component to its long term success? What unintended consequences may result from paying student-athletes and what effect would these consequences have on athletes and the long term viability of college athletic programs? This literature review contains an in depth discussion of these questions through an analysis of the arguments both for and against paying college athletes.
The initial question inherent in the issue of whether or not college athletes should be paid centers around why athletes choose to attend college. Brad Wolverton, in “Amateurism Goes on Trial, and Sonny Vaccaro is Still on the Case” provides insight into the courtroom dialogue from O’Bannon v. NCAA, a landmark case involving compensating college athletes. According to the NCAA attorney, it is the NCAA’s belief that student-athletes attend college to obtain an education, make friends, and enjoy the college experience, not merely as a stage to perform athletically (Wolverton 2). Ekow N. Yankah expresses a similar view in “Why NCAA Athletes Shouldn’t Be Paid”. “The drive to pay college athletes fails to recognize the value of sports as a part of education,” Yankah argues. “This value,” he continues, “can be seen in the countless student-athletes, from gymnasts to softball players, who pour hours of work into training and competing with no hope of going pro.” Yankah further contends that student-athletes value the opportunity to receive an education while continuing to play the sport they love in front of a crowd with whom they “walk the same halls, have the same professors, and sweat the same midterms as they do” (2).
Wolverton, however, throws a wrench in this theory when he reveals the plaintiff, Ed O’Bannon’s, real reason for attending college. “I was an athlete masquerading as a student. I did basically the minimum to make sure I kept my eligibility academically so I could continue to play,” explains O’Bannon. Wolverton continues to describe how O’Bannon “lived off campus, rarely socialized, and studied as little as possible — instead spending most of his time in the gym” (2).
It’s not just Ed O’Bannon who feels this way. In “Point/Counterpoint: Paying College Athletes”, Dennis A. Johnson explains the results of a five-year study recording the lives of athletes in top level college basketball programs. “The study determined that the majority of athletes in these programs had a basic expectation of maintaining a GPA just high enough to remain eligible to compete,” laments Johnson, while adding that students don’t have time to be engaged in university life even if they want to. “Student-athletes feel over-scheduled with team practices, weight-training sessions, film study, individual workouts, travel, and competitions aimed at helping them maintain focus on their sport,” argues Johnson (8–9).
If most student-athletes view education as a low priority, then why do they attend college in the first place? They do so because of the NCAA’s monopsony power over the market, according to Allen R. Sanderson and John J. Siegfried in “The Case for Paying College Athletes”.
In other words, these athletes attend college because there is no other game in town. “Agreements to restrict the alternatives available to prospective college athletes are essential to the NCAA’s monopsony power in the athlete labor market,” further claim Sanderson and Siegfried (125). “The NFL and NBA aid and abet in this regard by restricting new player entry into their leagues, limiting access to the NFL only to players three years after high school graduation and entry into the NBA only to players who have reached age 19. The pool of prospective players therefore has limited alternative ways to practice, improve, and audition for the professional leagues other than to attend college” (125).
Sanderson and Siegfried further contend that this monopsony provides mutual benefits. The NCAA faces no legitimate competition for this age group and they receive an annual supply of new high school graduates. The NBA and NFL benefit by eventually drafting players who have received elite college training, increased maturity, and are closer to reaching the age of peak performance ability (Sanderson and Siegfried 125). Although this arrangement has successfully lasted for decades, the NCAA is currently being challenged in court on the grounds that its monopsony power violates federal antitrust laws. A decision is expected in early 2019 and could alter the landscape of college sports (Deakins 1).
Given the limited options for post-high school athletes, is maintaining amateurism in college athletics still a necessity? The NCAA has long argued that amateurism is a key component of college athletics and compensating student-athletes above and beyond their educational expenses would dissolve their amateur status. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agrees with this argument. In hearing the O’Bannon v. NCAA case on appeal in 2016, the appeals court ruled that it was appropriate to give student-athletes a grant-in-aid that would cover their full cost of college attendance rather than just tuition, as had been the limit historically. However, they overruled the lower court’s decision to allow student-athletes to receive an additional $5,000 in compensation annually, noting that would violate their amateur status. According to the appeals court “not paying student-athletes was precisely what makes them amateurs” (American Law Yearkbook 17).
Yankah, however, strongly disagrees with the amateurism argument and believes it has come to border on farce. The fact that these athletes generate millions of dollars in revenue for their schools and only see a miniscule portion of it in the form of a scholarship — all in the name of amateurism — is completely unfair according to Yankah (1). Dennis Johnson further argues that the amateurism excuse is all smoke and mirrors. “Scholarships can be seen as pay for play, or at the very least, a quid pro quo for services rendered during a four-year period,” says Johnson. “This deception has been accepted for so long because athletes have felt disenfranchised and feared losing their scholarships and eligibility if they complained” (Johnson and Acquaviva 11).
However, with the somewhat recent explosion in revenue generated in college sports, student-athletes are beginning to question the equity of the current model and are becoming less fearful about speaking up. It is highly likely that the future of college athletics will not be decided on the field, court, or gym, but rather in the courtroom. Several former college athletes have joined a class action lawsuit named “In Re: National Collegiate Athletic Association Athletic Grant-in-Aid Cap Antitrust Litigation” in which they are suing to change the current system in order to allow players to be compensated above the cost of college attendance (Deakins 1). What a possible new payment structure might look like is unknown, but it is likely that change is on the horizon.
Therefore, it becomes important to consider the possible effects student-athlete compensation may have on the future of both athletes and college athletic programs. Are there unintended consequences that may cause current proponents of paying athletes to wish they had just accepted the status quo? “While from an ethical standpoint it may not be appropriate for the NCAA and universities to make millions of dollars off free labor, there are too many economic implications and consequences that make it difficult to pay college athletes,” fears Harrison Marcus in “Economic Analysis: NCAA Athletes Should Not Be Paid” (1). His fears are mostly related to the little guy in this scenario.
“With increased labor costs, the losses endured by smaller athletic programs would become too great and these universities would be financially pressured to shut down their athletic program,” argues Marcus (3).
His worries are not just limited to athletic programs, but also to individual players. “Better athletes would be rewarded with higher wages, but many less talented athletes who previously were good enough to play a college sport when the wages were zero would be left searching for an opportunity that is not there for them in the market,” contends Marcus. Even those athletes fortunate enough to receive compensation would likely suffer unexpected consequences. Marcus continues, “Basic economic theory suggests that as wages increase, other benefits must decrease. A significant increase in wages could mean a decrease in quality of facilities and coaching, medical care, road game treatment, and academic support” (4).
Furthermore, Sanderson and Siegfried worry about the effect a pay for play system would have on the viewing audience. They warn, “Intercollegiate athletics currently is quite popular in spite of a fairly high degree of competitive imbalance. After all, a few dominant teams create an opportunity for other teams to be dragon slayers. As a recent Sports Illustrated article put it, ‘without Goliath, David was just a dude throwing stones without a concealed weapons permit’” (131). These are all important consequences to consider and make it clear that there is no easy answer as to whether or not college athletes should be paid.
The future viability of intercollegiate athletics will be greatly affected by the outcome of the athlete compensation debate. Both sides seem to accept this reality and hope to find solutions that will preserve the centuries long American tradition of intercollegiate athletic competition while also providing a fair and equitable environment for the student-athletes who make this competition possible.
Possible alternatives to collegiate level sports, such as the NBA G-League, are currently in their infancy. These developmental leagues may end up providing high performing high school athletes not interested in furthering their education a suitable option to continue playing their sport while also receiving compensation. The exposure, development, and competition in these developmental leagues hasn’t yet reached the level that most college conferences offer so it’s too early to tell whether these alternatives will eventually provide real competition for the NCAA. It will also be beneficial, and perhaps inevitable depending on the outcome of current lawsuits, for the NCAA to consider various compensation models for athletes, such as paying players per game, per minutes played, or hiring players as college staff at moderate salaries plus room and board. Alternative models would need to be analyzed financially to determine the effect they would have on the viability of various collegiate programs.
It’s difficult to predict what the future holds for intercollegiate athletic competition. However, it seems clear that the status quo will not endure. Alternative competition coupled with current and prospective lawsuits will surely force the NCAA to change the current athlete compensation model. “It seems unlikely that the landscape of big time commercialized intercollegiate athletics 10 years from now will resemble today’s incarnation, or anything seen in the last half-century,” predicts Sanderson and Siegfried (136). What will be the norm ten years from now? Perhaps future college signing days will include the unveiling of the year’s highest paid recruit. Only time will tell.
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