Paying college athletes won’t solve the big problem with US college sports

My first job, while I was in high school, was at the university bookstore in my town. The university had a high-profile sports program and student athletes got scholarships that included the cost of their textbooks. At the end of the semester students often returned books for resale. Many times the athletes’ books were returned unopened, in the original wrapping.

I live for college sports. I get emotional about it; I sometimes weep at old highlight reels played during March Madness, the national college basketball tournament. This stems from growing up in a poor community. The most exciting period of my childhood was the Cinderella-like evolution of the university’s obscure basketball team into a nationally competitive sports dynasty. Only in college sports does this happen, and this is what makes March Madness such a dramatic, uniting spectacle.

But it’s hard to not feel a little ambivalent about the fact that such successes are achieved thanks to the work of unpaid teenagers.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the college sports cartel, makes $1 billion a year in revenue, most of it from March Madness and televising football games. Most of the revenue is distributed to coaches and university athletic departments, but not one cent goes to the athletes themselves.

Each year the tournament sparks calls to pay student athletes, and outrage at the the injustice of the situation. Now former New York Times columnist Joe Nocera has just released a provocative new book detailing the hypocrisy of college sports in America by not paying athletes.

I disagree with him. No doubt student athletes aren’t getting what they deserve. But I don’t believe paying them is the best solution. In fact, it may actually do more harm, because it gives universities permission to continue to short-change athletes on the most valuable compensation they get: their education.

The concept of a student athlete is a good one…

College athletes get scholarships, which means they are, at least in theory, paid in education. That’s far more valuable than whatever salary they might earn as a minor-league professional. Starting minor-league baseball players earn a maximum $1,100 a month for a five-month season, while a college degree increases your earnings by more than $1 million, on average, over your lifetime.

The student-athlete model also avoids a potentially bad market outcome. Many American college football and basketball players aspire to a multi-million-dollar professional career. But fewer than 2% will go pro. Paying student athletes in education means hopeful 17-year-olds have a built-in back-up plan; if they don’t attain fame and fortune, they still have a sensible degree and a path to another career.

Finally, student athletics gives scholarships to people who might not otherwise have the money or the grades to go to college.

…and there’s not much money to pay them anyway…

Despite the nearly $1 billion the NCAA pumps back into college sports, university athletic programs aren’t flush with cash. In 2013 (pdf) the typical university in the Football Bowl Subdivision (the big money-making division) spent more than it brought in; the median loss was $11.6 million. Only a few schools, with very successful football teams, turn a profit most years. And just barely. The most profitable sports program netted just $200,000 in 2013.

Nearly all the revenue comes from two sports, men’s football and men’s basketball. These do typically make a profit, but again, not a large one. Median men’s football profits are about $3 million a year, and basketball just $300,000.

So what’s that $1 billion revenue paying for? Here’s the breakdown on expenses for the median Football Bowl Subdivision school:

The largest share of the budget goes to paying employees—mostly the coaches for the high-revenue sports. The median coaching salary budget is $4.5 million for football (there are normally several coaches) and $1.8 million for basketball.

The rest of the money subsidizes other men’s sports (lacrosse, soccer, fencing) and all women’s sports. Paying student athletes in high-revenue sports would therefore mean eliminating some other sports scholarships or programs. And even if those were cut (probably impossible because of title IX, which ensures no gender discrimination) and coaches were paid more like professors, the money still needs to be split among a university’s average of 118 football players and 16 basketball players. It doesn’t add up to the lavish salaries professional athletes are paid.

Also, it’s not clear who would be paid what. A small fraction of players, the ones destined for fame and fortune, win games, are worth more, and bring in more revenue. Right now, by being paid in education—and the exposure necessary to secure a pro contract—they effectively subsidize the weaker players.

…but they are not getting the education they need

Of course the student athlete model only works if the education is valuable and athletes benefit from it. And there’s evidence, as I saw in those of piles of unopened textbooks, that many do not.

Student athletes face grueling hours between team practices, games, and carrying a full course load. It would be a struggle for even the best student, and many elite athletes come to university ill-prepared for a college curriculum.

My experience with the textbooks isn’t just anecdotal: There are numerous reports of athletes not writing their papers, taking fake classes, or studying subjects with dubious academic merit. Among students who enrolled in 2008—the most recent data available—student athletes overall graduated at a slightly higher rate than average, but in some sports (pdf), particularly men’s basketball, they did far worse:

(An aside: The NCAA argues the numbers above are misleading because they show only the share of students who graduated from the university they first enrolled in. It publishes (pdf, p. 6) a statistic called the “graduation success rate,” which includes students who graduated after transferring to another university, and is quite a bit higher. But the NCAA doesn’t calculate that rate for non-student athletes, making a fair comparison impossible.)

And, disparity or no disparity, those student athletes who don’t graduate are getting an education that is near-worthless. That means that their compensation for having given several years of their lives to student athletics is effectively zero.

On top of that, sports take a toll on their bodies, and if they are injured they might lose their scholarships and health care.

These failures won’t be solved by paying student athletes a small salary. Here is a better way to spend the NCAA revenue:

  • Guaranteed scholarships for five years, even if the student gets injured
  • Allow those in high-revenue sports to take fewer classes during the season
  • Hold student athletes accountable for taking real classes and earn decent grades
  • Offer them the academic support they need to learn, not just to barely scrape through with a pass

Placing a higher value on education and guaranteeing student athletes an extra year over the four-year norm for a US college course means they can focus on getting a good degree if a pro career doesn’t materialize.

Paying student athletes would make them into employees. That undermines the very concept of student athletics and also gives universities permission to short-change the players. It’s better to fully embrace the concept of student athlete, and hold universities accountable for the education they promised to provide.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search