The American collegiate sports industry is currently valued at $8 billion. Top college football and basketball programs bring in upwards of $100 million a year in revenue. Private companies, such as CBS, rake in huge sums of money—in 2010, the company signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion contract to broadcast the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s March Madness basketball tournament, an event that brought in $1.13 billion in advertising revenue in 2015 alone. Coaches are lavishly compensated: in 39 out of 50 states, the highest paid public employee is a college football or basketball coach. Nick Saban and Jim Harbaugh, the coaches of Alabama and Michigan football, respectively, both make more than $7 million a year. Corporate sponsors, such as Chick-fil-A and Tostitos, use college sports as a massive marketing tool, sponsoring bowl games, tournaments, halftime shows, and even coin tosses.
Amidst all of this profit, one group is notably left out: the players. These people are responsible for creating the product that brings in millions of dollars—putting the most on the line day in and day out to keep the industry alive—but they don’t share in any of the profit. This is economic exploitation in its purest form and should not continue. Any college athlete involved in a sport that makes a profit for their school should be compensated for the work they put in.
The NCAA publicly rationalizes this injustice by promoting the myth of the “student athlete.” They romanticize the idea of college athletes playing as a way to pay for their education, claiming on their website that schools “support their student athletes’ academic success by providing state-of-the-art technology, tutoring, and access to academic advisors,” and that “student athletes…must be students first.”
In reality, academics are irrelevant to the experience of a top college football or basketball player. The graduation rates for college football and basketball players are 16 percent and 25 percent below the national average, respectively. This is even true with academic advisors that point these athletes towards the easiest classes, all with the goal of maintaining their grades to keep them eligible to play.
Sometimes, athletes aren’t involved in academics at all. At the University of North Carolina, over 3,100 students, almost all of whom were athletes, enrolled in fake classes that never met and required no work, designed to boost their GPAs and allow them to focus more on their athletic pursuits. Similar situations have been found at many other schools, such as the University of Michigan, Kansas State, and Stanford. Rashad McCants, a former UNC basketball player, put it bluntly: “You’re not there to get an education,” he said. “You’re there to make revenue for the college.” Or, as former Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones so eloquently said, “We ain’t come here to play school.”
Common arguments against paying NCAA athletes often reason that college athletes are going to make large sums of money playing professional sports later on anyway, that it will give wealthier schools a huge advantage, and that it will enlarge the preexisting deficits of many big athletic programs. All of these issues, however, are either based on fiction or can be worked around. Though the perception is that most big-time college athletes move on to the pros, this is far from the truth. Only 1.6 percent of college football players and 1.1 percent of college basketball players move on to the NFL or NBA. Therefore, the vast majority of college athletes in high profile sports end up using the prime four years of their life to damage their bodies and not receive an education.
Contrary to what the NCAA might argue, paying college athletes can be done in a controlled and fair way. With a reasonable salary cap, paying players would not advantage any schools in terms of their ability to recruit players or afford to keep their programs alive. Players and schools could negotiate contracts that meet the needs of both parties, similar to professional sports.
Currently, the majority of college football and basketball programs lose money every year—even though they bring in historically high sums from $50 to $100 million a year, they are, for the most part, spending far more. The majority of this spending goes to lavish new stadiums, locker rooms, practice facilities, and jerseys, as well as exceedingly high salaries for coaches and other personnel. While paying college athletes would theoretically put college football and basketball programs further in the red, dealing with the exorbitant spending by these programs would make this a non-issue.
Ultimately, playing D-I college football or basketball is a full-time job, one that takes up about 40 hours a week of an athlete’s time during the season and pays a whopping salary of $0.00. It’s time for the incredibly lucrative industries of college football and basketball to start paying their most important and industrious members.