An Economic Argument for the Paying of College Athletes


Collegiate sports has soared in popularity with the American public. With this popularity, revenue has increased dramatically. Colleges have benefited financially from this popularity, earning money from television broadcasts and ticket sales to events. In turn, some high-profile coaches are earning top wages. Even the median salary of football and basketball collegiate head coaches is significant, topping the million-dollar mark. These and other factors are contributing to a movement for economic compensation for college athletes. Arguments exist on both sides about payment of NCAA athletes. Some people favor the more fair treatment of the student athlete, while others fear that compensation could cause other problems in the future.

Colleges with high-profile athletic programs often attract a higher enrollment. This benefit makes pursuing athletics worthy of the effort for institutions. Winning sports seasons and charismatic coaches have both been instrumental in attracting more student applications at some colleges. A school's participation as a NCAA Division I institution seems to be more influential than winning or coaching, however. Private donations may also hinge on the overall profitability of a school's athletic program. Schools also consider alumni interest and participation a viable source of income.

Colleges that are members of the NCAA have begun receiving significant funds as a result of their participation in these sports programs. Questions have arisen regarding the use of this revenue. In reality, college athletes do receive compensation for their participation in NCAA sports programs in the form of grants-in-aid. Athletic scholarships are the primary way in which college athletes benefit from their sports performances. Scholarships include compensation to pay for college tuition, room and board, educational materials and books, and any associated student fees. In return for athletic performance, some student athletes can receive a free education. The amount of monetary compensation depends on the cost of tuition and related expenses at an individual college. Officials in the NCAA are now proposing increases in awards given to student athletes.

When comparing college athletes to other students, athletes do not have the same amount of time for outside employment. This is due to the significant time they must spend in athletic practice and games. Conversely, other students have time to earn income from a job when they are not engaged in their studies. College athletes also experience a risk of injury as a result of athletic play, which could result in lifelong health issues.

Changing the system and redistributing some of the revenue back to players would have a multitude of effects. A school would need to institute some type of method of determining player performance and contributions as it relates to revenue generated. High-profile student athletes would likely receive significant compensation, while lesser players would receive less or even nothing. For example, a school might decide to pay the starting players and the first two substitute players some type of compensation. This would leave other players without any compensation, possibly even including a decrease in scholarships available.

There are some other potential drawbacks as well. Paying college athletes could lead schools to alter their compensation structure as time goes on, and a competitive market for college athletes could drive up salaries. To get and keep star players, schools might need to be willing to pay them more. Schools may also need to figure out how to pay these salaries in the long term. Possible sources of income could be from higher general student fees, reducing other student scholarships, or tapping into academic programs. The expense of paying student athletes could lead to fewer teams with more volunteer players. The drafting of college players onto professional teams would also likely change, with a smaller group of players vying for these spots. Athlete compensation could also result in changes to the overall school climate that even might turn off non-athletic students and alumni.

Adjustments in the competitive balance for NCAA athletics would likely result in shifts in the overall playing field. Athletes would need to decide whether they prefer receiving cash from a big Division I college or whether they would prefer the non-cash benefits of free tuition and living expenses they might get from a smaller school. Meanwhile, schools will need to perform periodic reassessments to ensure continued profitability. While paying players might seem like the obvious fair thing to do, the bottom line is that it's impossible to completely predict the long-term effect of paying college athletes for their performances, so any changes in the system should be undertaken carefully.

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