Should College Athletes be Paid?

March 31, 2024

should college athletes be paid

Okay, I won’t hide the ball: my answer to the question, “Should college athletes be paid?” is a resounding, “Yes.” But before I go through the reasons why (and some countervailing streams of thought as well), I think it’s important to place the question in the larger context of money in college sports. Why? Because there just so happens to be a ton of money in college sports. On Saturdays during football season, hundreds of thousands of fans across the nation flock to iconic stadiums—the Big House, Death Valley, the Swamp—and pay premium ticket prices to watch their favorite teams go at it.

Millions more tune in to the games from home, and the NCAA conferences take advantage of the sport’s popularity to the tune of billions of dollars. In 2022, the Big Ten, for example, inked a seven-year media rights agreement with Fox, CBS, and NBC worth upwards of $7 billion.

The coaches are very much in on the action, too. College football coaches, especially those who strategize from the sidelines of premiere football schools, boast yearly salaries that are truly jaw-dropping. In the last year before his retirement, Alabama’s Nick Saban made $11.41 million. The same year, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney pocketed $10.88 million, and Georgia’s Kirby Smart took home $10.71 million. Sure, those are some of the best football programs in the country. But still: more than a hundred Division I coaches earn over $1 million. The top 25 college football coaches earn an average of $5.2 million per year. The top 25 college basketball coaches earn an average of $3.2 million per year.

Should College Athletes be Paid (Continued)

Every year, the NCAA rakes in about a billion dollars from March Madness alone. In 2019, Connecticut senator Chris Murphy released a report titled “Madness, Inc.”, which took aim at what the report termed the “college sports industrial complex.” The report cites Department of Education data which showed that college sports programs brought in a whopping $14 billion in revenue in 2018 alone. In terms of revenue, college sports beat out every professional sports league in the world, except the NFL.

And here’s the kicker: college athletes—the product that millions of Americans pay to watch compete—aren’t compensated for their on-the-field performance. That’s because the NCAA’s long-enshrined policy of amateurism states that student-athletes are students first—thus “amateurs”—and are therefore not eligible for compensation. The good news? In 2021, the NCAA implemented an interim policy. This allows student-athletes to make money from their name, image, and likeness. The so-called NIL rule permits students to engage in money-making “NIL activities,” like selling autographs and memorabilia, making paid appearances, and going into business with brands. The new NIL policy is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t address the root of the problem. In 2022, only 17% of student-athletes at Division I schools participated in NIL activities. The median compensation (note: not the average, which can be distorted by particularly high-earners) was $65 per NIL activity.

America seems to have come to a consensus on the question of should college athletes be paid. According to a recent poll, 67% of Americans believe that college athletes should be compensated for their performance. Not just for their name, image, and likeness.

Should college athletes be paid?

 Now let’s confront the question head on: should college athletes be paid? I’ve already gone on record with an unequivocal, “yes.” But to preserve a sense of fairness, I’ll go through some of the arguments on the opposite side of the issue, and in so doing hopefully provide a sound justification for my answer.

Should college athletes be paid? No, they’re already paid in the form of scholarships

Should college athletes be paid? No, some say, because college athletes already receive full scholarships, which is tantamount to payment. Unfortunately, this argument doesn’t pass the sniff test. Every year, Division I and II colleges dole out about $2.9 billion in scholarships to some 150,000 student-athletes. That sounds great until you realize that the average yearly scholarship is just about $18,000; that’s far from sufficient to cover tuition at most private schools or out-of-state tuition at state schools. Overall, only 1% of student-athletes receive a “full ride” scholarship. Under a little scrutiny, then, the argument that college athletes receive compensation in the form of scholarships falls apart.

So college athletes aren’t paid via scholarships. Sure, that’s a fact, but not an argument as to why college athletes should be paid. Well, here’s the argument: given the money and exposure that athletes generate for their schools, any just system would require they be compensated for the value they add. A phenomenon known as the Flutie Effect describes how a college football team’s success leads to an increase in applications. When college football teams go from “mediocre to great,” applications increase by as much as 18%. And better performance on the gridiron results in more donations to the school. Donations go up significantly when football squads post better records.

To put it concisely: athletes bring significant value to their schools in the form of exposure and monetary donations, and scholarships do not amount to an adequate form of compensation. Therefore, college athletes deserve to be paid.

But it would be too complicated to figure out salaries!

The “it’s just too difficult!” argument is a common retort to the question of should college athletes be paid. It’s also a fixture in American political discourse. Should the U.S., say, move towards single-payer healthcare? Of course not—it’d be too difficult to implement!

Here, the “it’s-too-difficult” argument suggests that determining which college athletes would get compensated, and how much they’d get compensated, would be a complicated and messy undertaking. Therefore, it’d be better simply not to pay college athletes.

But appealing to the apparent intractability of a problem is no reason not to address it. The fact that it might be difficult to correct an iniquity is no justification for not trying to correct it at all.

Professional sports leagues are far from shining models of equity and fairness. UFC fighters—who aren’t unionized, by the way—are only paid about 20% of overall revenue, whereas unionized leagues like the NBA, MLB, and NFL share roughly 50% of their revenue with players. There are issues of gender equity across leagues, too. The average WNBA base salary is $120,600; the average NBA base salary is $5.4 million. However, there are plenty of professional sports leagues that have managed to figure out how to fairly compensate their athletes, from superstars to bench players. When one considers this fact, the “it’s too complicated” argument falls apart, too.

Where would the money come from?

Another oft-heard argument that answers, “no,” to the question of should college athletes be paid goes like this: because so few college athletics programs are cash-flow positive, schools would have to make cuts to minor sports programs to come up with the money to pay athletes who compete in premiere sports, like football and basketball. This line of reasoning assumes that paying marquee college athletes would preclude the possibility of paying athletes who compete in more minor or niche sports. But that assumption is not warranted.

As I noted previously, professional sports leagues—from the NFL to independent league baseball to professional jai alai—have figured out how to compensate players with different levels of skill and star power. There’s no reason to think the NCAA couldn’t do it as well.

The way resources are allocated reflects an institution’s values. At least one highly-paid college football coach has gone on record as saying he’d happily take less money if it meant his players would be paid.

Paying athletes would take away from the love of the game

In doing research for this article, I confronted this argument or one of its variations quite a lot. It goes like this: college athletics should compete not for financial gain but for a nebulous “love of the game.” Paying college athletes would tarnish the otherwise pure and idealistic realm of college sports.

But we’ve already established that college sports are a big business. The NCAA, conferences, schools, and coaches all benefit from that business. Why should the athletes be the only ones who have to work with no pay, just to fulfill some romanticized and unrealistic idea of college sports?

Plus, participating in college sports amounts to a full-time job. Although NCAA policy states that athletes may only dedicate 20 hours per week to sports-related activity, studies have shown that Division I athletes spend an average of 35 hours per week on sports activities. A lawsuit filed by two UNC football players alleged that the NCAA skirted around its own policies and deprived players of a meaningful education.

Those who answer “no” to the question of should college athletes be paid are therefore confronted with a dilemma. If student-athletes should only be competing for the “love of the game,” why does their participation in college sports look a lot like a full-time job? And if their participation in college sports looks like a full-time job, why are they not compensated accordingly?

Should college athletes be paid? – a few more thoughts

Participation in college sports takes up a large chunk of a student-athlete’s time, study time included. Right now, student-athletes are getting the worst of both worlds. They’re not compensated for their positions as athletes (nor are the vast majority of them getting those coveted “free ride” educations), and their participation in sports precludes them from fully dedicating themselves to their studies. Student-athletes make a major sacrifice to participate in sports. Further, this sacrifice that brings immense value to their schools and the NCAA. Student athletes ought to be compensated for that sacrifice.

Speaking of sacrifices, college athletes are at constant risk of injury. A serious on-the-field injury could result in an athlete losing his or her scholarship and the opportunity to play professionally. But let’s put aside the potential financial ramifications of an injury. A 2017 study examined the deceased bodies of former American football players. The findings were shocking: 91% of college football players had the degenerative brain disease CTE. If schools want their athletes to risk their mental and physical well-being, they should pay them according to that risk.

Let’s end with some straight up common sense—athletes need money just like everyone else. Participating in a college sport and keeping up with academic demands makes it virtually impossible for a student-athlete to earn extra money working a part-time job. Paying student-athletes would act as a corrective to this untenable situation.

Should College Athletes be Paid – Additional Resources 

We hope you have found our article on whether college athletes should be paid to be insightful. We also want to recommend checking out the following resources: