Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Why College Athletes Shouldn't Get Paid

In the maelstrom of the Miami scandal, I've been hearing many people suggest that it's time for the NCAA to allow schools to pay their athletes. After all, athletes in some sports generate huge amounts of revenue. And while they receive a free education, they're hardly living the high life on their weekly food stipends. It all seems so unfair.

And after what's been happening at Miami and other schools, it seems like a system of paying college athletes would be better than random boosters hooking them up with prostitutes and cars. Athletic salaries would put cash in the players' pockets, which would make them less likely to seek and/or accept illegal "gifts" from outside their institution.

There's a few problems, though. While big football and basketball programs do create revenue streams, that money isn't going to an owner or to a corporation. It's going to a school. And that school takes that money and reinvests it within itself. The money produced by a big football program can help pay a tennis programs' travelling expenses, it can refurbish a soccer field, pay for a new Zamboni. Or outside of athletics, it can pay for the renovation of science labs, for campus security, for more teachers, for better computers.

While it might seem fair to compensate the athletes that play for revenue producing teams, it's impossible to pay them and not deprive funding for another athletic program or part of the school.

I believe that athletics are an important part of education. Do you know what Division-I school fields the most intercollegiate varsity teams? Harvard. They field teams in 41 sports, so they must feel as though sports are important, and surely not just for the revenue. I doubt that the Ivy League's TV contract is particularly lucrative.

The lessons learned by playing sports can be invaluable in the real world. That's why I have no problem with state and Federal money helping to fund athletics (most big-time athletic programs are at state schools, and even the one's in private schools receive Federal assistance). That's also why I believe in Title IX. Because if schools are going to argue that athletics is an important part of education, then athletics cannot be just for the boys to benefit from.

If athletics are important to the educational experience, then sports and teams that generate revenue shouldn't receive special treatment, especially at the expense of the teams that don't generate revenue. It might seem unfair to not pay a Heisman winning QB that wins a national title, but it's unfair if that QB received a $50,000 paycheck and subsequently the baseball team couldn't afford bats and helmets so the team had to fold.

There are unfortunate stories of athletes hamstrung by NCAA rules, and forced to drop out because even with a full scholarship, they're restricted from earning enough money on their own to support a parent or a child. Perhaps the NCAA can make special exceptions in such cases, and allow an athlete to get a job and earn money. But just because there are a few of these sad stories, doesn't mean that the whole SEC should receive a paycheck. There are countless regular people who cannot finish or even start their college education because of financial constrictions. Why should someone be an exception just because they know how to read a blitz?

I struggle to sympathize with the plight of a college athlete. While some generate revenue, there is no greedy, mustachioed owner exploiting them, pocketing all that revenue for his own evil schemes. All schools are non-profit organizations. These athletes receive a free education, which can be worth upwards of $100,000. That means that when they graduate, they'll have no student loans to pay off. And there's no shortage of companies run by alumni who will give a middle linebacker a job in middle management.

I've heard it suggested that the NCAA should allow boosters to pay athletes. After all, isn't that sort of like tipping a bartender for doing a good job? And that would allow the school to continue to reinvest the money it makes off of its big teams. But this creates a massive conflict of interests. In the Miami scandal, some boosters offered bonuses for big hits against Miami's rivals. That impacts a game. What if a booster offers a reward for sacking the QB? That might encourage a defensive lineman to rush upfield Dwight Freeney style, instead of listening to his coach and defending the run. That impacts the game.

If boosters pay athletes, those athletes are beholden to them. In other words, the boosters become the bosses. The coach loses power, the school loses power, the boosters can even discipline players by cutting salary. Most disturbing of all is the idea of boosters having an impact on how the game is played. And how long would it be before a gambler started paying players to do things?

Compensating athletes would likely suppress the amount of illegal payments that are made by boosters. What else could suppress such payments is a comprehensive overhaul of the disciplinary hierarchy of college sports. The schools and conferences need to step up and take charge over monitoring their athletes. The NCAA cannot possibly keep tabs on 120 football programs, each with 85 scholarship athletes (that's over 10,000 players). I'll discuss the measures the NCAA, conferences, and schools need to take in my next post: Why Miami Should Receive the Death Penalty.

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