Opinion: Paying College Athletes Isn’t as Easy as Writing a Check

Chelsea Lenhart*, MPA, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

Tickets are already on sale for the 2016 March Madness tournament, with prices ranging from $15 for a single game to more than $200 for the Final Four showdown. In 2014, the NCAA earned nearly $900 million in revenue from March Madness alone. Fans often bet high stakes on March Madness, with total betting on March Madness almost double the amount made on the Super Bowl.

The U.S. News and World Report held a “Debate Club” series on paying college athletes where four experts stated college athletes should be paid while three opposed this view. Their reasons behind paying college athletes ranged from the fan myth that college athletic programs are “amateur athletics,” to colleges gaining money from their athletes, to athletes working hard enough to earn a respectable wage.  The three dissenters in the argument stressed that education is payment and direct financial incentives would be economically too expensive. Because not all college athletes receive scholarship, many college athletes miss a lot of class, and not all sports programs are profitable for colleges, the dissenters are correct: college athletes should not be paid.  

Understanding Athletic Scholarships

Many fans believe that college athletes receive a free-ride education to the universities they represent on the playing field. However, this simply is not the case. The majority of college athletes play for Division II or Division III schools, which very rarely offer athletic scholarships. Even for Division I athletes, there is a capped number of total allowable athletic scholarships for each sport, many of which have much fewer scholarships than positions on the roster.

Athletic scholarships are also awarded on a year-to-year basis and can be discontinued by the university at any time. Although schools can award four-year scholarships, many do not. The reasoning favors university interests: if an athlete gets hurt, or performance stops meeting expectations, then a team can cut the athlete with no repercussions. As pointed out by John Oliver, athletes are left susceptible to injuries and the whims of coaches. Any given day can signal the end for an athlete and their much needed scholarship.

College Sports: More Than a Full-Time Job

A recent lawsuit filed by two former University of North Carolina Chapel Hill players sheds light on how many hours college athletes spend on their sport and how few hours are spent on academics. The two claim they we required to dedicate more than 40 hours a week to practice commitments. A 2006 survey by the NCAA titled “The Student-Athlete Perspective of the College Experience,” found that college athletes spent an average of 45 hours a week on athletics. The NCAA rule that athletes can only spend 20 hours per week outside of competition towards their sport does not include hours spent on “voluntary” practice, working with a trainer, or traveling to and from practice and competitions.

Source: Youthvoices.net

College athletes also miss a shocking amount of classes, with some sports reporting as many as 2.5 missed classes per week while in season. With the time constraints placed on college athletes, it is difficult to state with certainty that the “free” education they earn is a fair trade-off. With the time spent participating in athletics, college athletes also miss out on opportunities such as part-time jobs and internships, experiences that give their classmates an advantage in job searching upon graduation.

Not all Sports are Made Equal

Widely viewed sports, such as college baseball, generate little revenue for universities. In 2012, the University of Arizona’s baseball team made it to the College World Series and only generated $350,000 in ticket sales. This underscores the main flaw in the argument to pay college athletes:Top-tier schools might make enough to pay their athletes, but what about other programs? How would schools determine how to pay their athletes? If they are required to pay all athletes equally under Title IX, then numerous institutions would go bankrupt, or would be forced to make difficult decisions about which sports to keep and which to cut. Is paying some athletes worth limiting the opportunities for many others?

How to Fix the System

There is no simple solution to fixing the massive industry of college athletics. However, there are  numerous ways that the NCAA and schools can better their athletes without directly paying them:

  • Enforce the maximum hours rule
    • College athletes should not be expected to devote time above the mandated 20 hours a week towards practice. “Voluntary” practices should be banned or highly regulated by the NCAA to ensure that teams are not taking advantage of student athletes. Enforcing this rule will allow athletes to participate more fully in their academics.
  • Provide increased scholarship opportunities and require full-length scholarships
    • Rosters typically have at least 15 college athletes, forcing teams to either split up scholarships to provide funding to all athletes, or give some players no scholarships at all. The NCAA should focus on providing at least partial scholarships for all athletes, regardless of sport. Scholarships should also cover an athlete from the point of entering the university to the point of graduation, with the exception of athletes who voluntarily quit the sport. This would protect athletes who may get injured during their time at their university.  
  • Include food packages as a part of scholarships
    • Another straining point for many athletes is nutrition. As pointed out by John Oliver and Jon Stewart, many college athletes don’t have enough money to pay for adequate food. American University publishes nutrition goals for their athletes, with female athletes needing to eat roughly 3000 calories a day just to maintain their weight. For sports that require athletes to “bulk up,” the caloric intake can be doubled. There is no reason athletes shouldn’t receive food stipends that balance out their strenuous training requirements. Some schools, such as Michigan State, provide athletes with the “training table” meal option built to give athletes adequate amounts of food. Even these can fall short though, and hours of operations for some on campus meal options are very limited, leaving athletes hungry.

Paying college athletes is a contentious issue, and one that should be debated at further length. Many college athletes are not able to take advantage of their time in the classroom or their time on campus like their non-athlete counterparts. The scholarship system is designed in a way that not all college athletes receive the fruits of their labor, and many college athletes are in constant fear that they may lose their scholarships. Dialogue about college athlete financial incentives should emphasize how to improve the athletic scholarship system rather than  the monetary compensation an athlete may reap.

*Chelsea Lenhart was a Division I student-athlete competing for The George Washington University Colonials Softball team from 2010-2013. In addition to athletic scholarship, Chelsea also received academic scholarship, and worked as a Residence Advisor during the academic year with numerous odd jobs during the off season in order to pay for school.

One thought on “Opinion: Paying College Athletes Isn’t as Easy as Writing a Check

  1. So why not pay the athletes? The problem is the people who make the argument that these athletes are also students, and they are getting a full scholarship and a completely free college education. There’s no denying that and it is a valid point; however, let’s look at the numbers. Let’s assume the cost of a four year college education at a good school is somewhere in the neighborhood of $150,000. That might be high or low depending on the school, if it’s a private or public institution, cost of living and a number of other factors.


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