Should College Athletes Be Paid? The Pros and Cons

James Flippin Contributor
Should College Athletes Be Paid? The Pros and Cons

Should college athletes be paid is a question that evokes mixed opinions across the board. Here are the pros and cons.

People have been asking if college athletes deserve to be paid for years. As governed by National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), college athletics are amateur sports. But the questions connected to compensating athletes are wide-ranging and complex.

Collegiate sports generated $14 billion in revenue for 2019 alone, so financially compensating student-athletes is a natural discussion. In professional sports minimum contracts are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars while top players earn millions annually. Taking a closer look at the money in college athletics, the NCAA Division 1 basketball tournament has a contract with Turner Broadcasting and CBS for nearly $9 billion over eight years. ESPN pays the College Football Playoff $470 million annually through the 2025-2026 season. In addition to the billions of dollars at play here, college athletics involve nearly half a million student-athletes and over 20,000 teams.

If each college student were paid, they would become employees, changing the nature of their relationship with the school and its athletic department. In this piece we’re exploring: should college athletes be paid? How would this affect athletic programs? Does the concept denigrate the concept of academics?

Beyond the academics vs. athletics debate, there’s the question of how the money would work. Paying college athletes could alter the nature of athletic scholarships, eligibility requirements, endorsement deals, and intercollegiate athletics in general. Let’s first lay out the history, then discuss some pros and cons, in order to properly consider the various opinions people hold.

How Did We Get Here? A Comprehensive History

The phrase “no pay for play” has been turned on its head in many ways over the last few years. That’s because the NCAA’s Division I Council suspended its amateurism rules around NIL (name, image, or likeness) monetization. While these policies continue to evolve, here’s a quick overview of things that have informed the debate on paying college athletes. These include legislation and court decisions in New York as well as California.

Fair Play Act Or FAIR Act

California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the Fair Play Act into law in 2019. The act makes it illegal to prevent college athletes from receiving financial compensation for the use of their Name, Image, or Likeness (NIL). So, college football and basketball players can now earn profits via sponsorships and endorsement deals. College athletes are also permitted to hire agents, who can negotiate on their behalf.

NCAA vs. Alston

In NCAA vs. Alston, the US Supreme Court found that the NCAA’s prohibition of student-athletes from receiving financial compensation violates federal antitrust laws. The unanimous decision upheld a lower court’s ruling that struck down the NCAA’s rules capping student-athlete benefits. In his brief, Justice Neil Gorsuch said that NCAA violated the Sherman Act when they limited education-related financial compensation.

Should College Athletes Be Paid: The Pros

The argument for paying college athletes has plenty of merits. After all, athletes train, practice, and put their bodies on the line. Why shouldn’t they get some amount of money or financial compensation for their efforts? Here are some of the pros or reasons why college athletes should be paid.

Attracts Better Athletes

A large number of students participate in athletics on the high school level. While the goal of attending college is to earn a degree, some of those students also have the talent to become professional athletes. If those amateur athletes knew they could turn their hard work into a paycheck through collegiate sports, they would stay with the college program longer and thus earn their degree before moving into professional sports.

Ensures Healthier Student-Athletes

Scholarships may offer room and board, or even tuition, but not all student-athletes meet the eligibility for athletic scholarships. If every college student was not required to generate income to cover their expenses, they could focus more on athletics and academics. They could also focus on putting in the hard work it takes to move from college sports into professional sports on a softball, basketball, or football team.

Incentivizes Amateur Athletes to Play

Not every college student will become a professional athlete. In fact, close to 98% of college athletes won’t go on to professional sports like the NFL or NBA. Talented student-athletes who don’t plan on going pro might join the college ranks if it meant they would receive a stipend or some amount of money to play.

Lowers Tuition

Paying college athletes could improve a team’s level of success by attracting better players. This could benefit the college as an improved team can mean more funding. Fans end up coming to more games, TV revenue may rise, and more merchandise is sold. With an influx of funding, the Athletic Director can focus on upgrading facilities. That increase in revenue could filter out into other departments, which could better support a healthy, balanced budget. This then has the potential to increase enrollment and lower the cost of tuition for all college students. 

Prevents Corruption

Athletic directors and college coaches have gotten in trouble in the past after offering financial compensation to amateur athletes. Sometimes this is motivated by the desire to make a run during March Madness. Major college football programs have been caught offering illicit benefits. There have even been cases of corruption in Division II or III, which are considered lower-level than D1. Legal filings and media reports contain numerous accusations of corruption and bribery within intercollegiate athletics. So, paying college athletes could eliminate widespread corruption by getting the money out in the open.

Provides Financial Relief to Families and Students

Student-athletes have schedules that are filled with exercise, training, and sports-related activities in addition to their coursework and study. So, it’s more difficult for college athletes to work full or part-time to pay for living and tuition expenses. Paying college athletes would help to alleviate some of the financial stress on students and their families.

Should College Athletes Be Paid: The Cons

Yes, there are some great points to be made as to why amateur student students should be paid for their hard work in collegiate sports. There are also a number of drawbacks that make it difficult for the school, athletics department, other students at the academic institution, and taxpayers. Here are a few of the cons surrounding paying college athletes. 

Burdens Taxpayers

In terms of basic economics, colleges would not be able to pay all athletes. If the athletic director was required to offer monetary support to all players, they’d likely need to get additional funding from taxpayers. Tuition costs would also rise. That creates a greater financial burden for everyone involved with the school.

Defunds Non-Athletic Programs

Paying student-athletes would further complicate the issue of funding across universities and colleges at a time when resources are already stretched thin. If the athletics department paid players there would be an increased push to defund or underfund other activities and programs across campus.

Inspires Unionization

If student-athletes received a salary, they would be classified as “employees,” which would give them the right to unionize. A student-athlete union would further complicate the relationship between athletes and the college in a way that might be similar to some of the recent issues observed in professional sports. 

Raise Questions about Paycheck Equality

Students already work for colleges via work-study programs. So, if college athletes were being paid to play, would the rate of pay be cut for other on-campus work? This could result in discriminatory practices. Some students would receive vastly different sums for fewer hours of work.

Shifts Priority to Athletics

Instead of focusing on the academics of a college, the athletics program would be prioritized. This has already happened on many campuses. Student-athletes would gravitate toward the schools that offered them the highest paycheck, instead of attending a school based on its academic standing.

What Republicans Think

Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) says paying student-athletes is a “huge mistake.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) further called it: a “rotten, no good idea to federalize college sports.” Many Republicans are vehemently opposed to the idea of monetary compensation for student-athletes, as well as the concept of federal regulation or oversight of paid college athletes.

What Democrats Think

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) says the current system relies on an unpaid labor force (student-athletes). He says: “For all those in this body who believe in a free market. I don’t know why we decide to keep it from athletes who are producing an incredibly and increasingly valuable service.”

Flag This: The Future of College Athletics

Whether you’re for or against paying student-athletes, the topic remains controversial and challenging. Following the latest legal developments, some college athletes could earn upwards of $2 million for each year they play. The NIL payments college athletes can now receive may have put the debate on hold and could be part of a long-term solution. Otherwise, Americans can only wait to see how the game plays out.