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Savage on Sports

Looking at collegiate athletics through an ethical lens.

  •  Should College Athletes Be Paid?

    Friday, Oct. 28, 2011

    Should College Athletes Be Paid: A Student Discussion at Santa Clara University

    Listen to three Santa Clara student athlete's weighing in on the most pressing issue in college sports today: whether or not college athletes should be paid beyond a scholarship. The arguments are compelling on both sides, and the panel of student athletes does a good job explaining each position. Panel members include Jack Penner (Junior, Men's water polo), Kevin Oliver (Junior, Men's Cross Country), and Matt Savage (Senior, Men's Cross Country and Hackworth Fellow '11-'12).

    Should College Athletes Be Paid: A Student Discussion at Santa Clara University

    Savage on Sports: College Athletes Should Not Be Paid

    I remember first hearing last year that college athletes should be paid more than just a scholarship and thinking, “No way.” I cringed at the thought of undermining the purity of college sports, and I assumed the rest of the country felt the same way. Well, after looking into the issue, I still cringe. Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore the arguments that perhaps paying these players a little extra isn’t a bad idea.

    Many people are viewing the payment of revenue generating athletes as a plausible and necessary solution to a very real problem facing college sports. Namely, the exploitation of student athletes. This problem has garnered so much attention that it prompted leading civil-rights historian Taylor Branch to write a 27 page expose published in The Atlantic attacking the NCAA and its notions of “amateurism” and the “student-athlete” as “cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections, propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes.” As much as I hate to admit it, Mr. Branch has a point.

    According to a USA Today article published in June of this year, there were 22 self-sufficient Division I college athletic programs in the country during the 09-10 academic year. This means that the revenue generated by the athletic department exceeds that department’s total expenses. Turns out, the median net surplus of those 22 schools was $7.4 million, with last years BCS title contender Oregon topping the list, raking in $41,853,109. Almost all of the generated money comes from lucrative television contracts that many of the major conferences are now signing, as well as ticket receipts and donations. Folks such as Taylor Branch take one look at numbers like these and instantly point to the fact that the very people responsible for generating such lucrative revenue for their respective institutions, i.e. the players, see only a tiny fraction of the immense value they create by simply playing their sport. The scholarships they do receive pail in comparison to these astronomical television revenues.

    Additionally, the NCAA places restrictions on athletes that prohibit them from profiting in anyway from their athletic labor. For example, I run cross country at Santa Clara University, and someone comes up to me and says “Hey Matt, you ran a great race yesterday, let me buy you dinner.” If I accepted such a kind and generous offer, I would be subject to violations that could potentially cost me eligibility and, more importantly, my team wins. Meanwhile, the NCAA requires all student-athletes to sign a waiver that allows the organization and the University to use the images and likeness of athletes for marketing and distribution purposes. This allows the NCAA to sign a contract with EA sports, for example, providing images of well known athletes to use in video games that generate millions of dollars, while giving none to the athlete because he or she has effectively signed away any right they had to that image.

    Apparently, the complaints haven’t fallen on deaf ears. There is currently legislation being pushed through the NCAA by its president, Mark Emmert, suggesting that colleges pay their full scholarship athletes additional stipends that cover the “cost of attendance.” That includes things beyond tuition, books, room, and board.

    Still, despite all the evidence presented, something about paying college athletes just does not sit right with me. I acknowledge that there is a level of exploitation that is going on within college athletics. It’s unjust to prevent an individual from profiting from his or her own labor outside of the university while using that athlete’s talents and accomplishments to sell his replica jersey in their bookstore for $30 a pop. That being said, this issue cannot be looked at through a purely economic framework. Paying these students-and yes we are students-beyond a scholarship contradicts the goals of a university. College’s primary commitment to any student is to educate that individual to the best of its abilities. That education goes beyond just an academic degree – and beyond what happens on an athletic field.

    Here at Santa Clara, we preach the three C’s of Competence, Conscience, and Compassion. The school and the athletic department emphasize cultivating a strong moral character within student-athletes so that we can have a positive impact in the community at large. Paying college athletes would serve only to corrupt and undermine that purpose. Think for a moment about the potential virtues sports build within a young person’s character. Courage, commitment, leadership, accountability, cooperation, dedication and humility come to mind as attributes we should admire and hope to instill in our athletes through competition. Paying athletes instead could potentially promote greed, vanity, pride, and selfishness, the very attributes we detest in many of our professional athletes today. We have to take some responsibility for the character that we instill in the young men and women of our society. People proposing to pay college athletes ignore the vital role of athletics plays in building that character.

    Not to mention they write off a scholarship as if it carries no meaning whatsoever. To be able to graduate college with a degree as well as debt free is not something to be dismissed, especially when the potential for future earnings is exponentially greater with a college education. Moreover, most of the money generated by college athletics is reinvested back into the team in the form of updated facilities, uniforms, equipment, travel, and various other benefits. It is not as if students aren’t getting anything substantial in return for playing a sport.

    People like Branch tend to ignore these claims, downplaying the importance of a free education and character as emotional, self-serving garbage. If that is the view that we are progressing towards, then our society is suffering a greater threat than figuring out whether or not a college football player should be paid.