Paying College Athletes

Posted: June 2, 2011 in Baseball, Basketball, College Sports, Football, Hockey, Lacrosse, Law

Jim Tressel recently resigned as head coach at Ohio State University. Normally, I’d ask, “So? OSU is no longer a top-5 program in college football, and there insistence otherwise annoys me, so I’m not watching.” However, the resignation has reenergized the debate on whether high school athletes should be paid, and South Park and the Daily Show have jumped on board, so I’m joining the debate as well. As to whether college athletes should be paid, here’s my answer:

Yes and no.

Most of my friends will sigh and say, “Typical lawyer’s response.” Well, they’d be right, but not because lawyers are afraid to commit to a point of view. Lawyers study issues more deeply than most others before opening our mouths and quickly learn to appreciate that the right answer is almost never perfect; it’s just the best one available. Almost all answers have something good in them, but all answers have at least some bad attached. The goal is to find the answer that creates the best net effect (i.e., the good minus bad). I wish more people would show that understanding in political debate.

But I digress.

Why Should We Pay Them?

Yes, NCAA athletes should be paid for all the reasons we typically hear. They’re adults (legally-speaking) who are working hard to make a ton of money for their school. They do so at the risk of great bodily injury that could derail their potential careers before they even start. It just seems unfair for so many people to make so much money off of other people’s work, even in the cases of those lucky few that do hit the big time.

Just How Bad Is It?

So the system is unfair, but it’s not that unfair. Even for the sports that make a ton of money (e.g., basketball and football), the student athletes are often getting a free education that costs tens of thousands of dollars for the rest of us. They also get free housing, meal plans, and paid tutors to make sure they succeed despite themselves. For most student athletes, that’s an important perk because they won’t actually have a professional career. They need that degree more than most of them will admit, and it’s handed to them on a silver platter. It takes a special form of stupidity and irresponsibility to screw up that.

Still, the issue of fairness remains because the dollar amounts the big sports generate should result in payments that would pay for all of these things for not only the student athlete, but for his children (future or otherwise) as well.

Why Not Pay Them?

What’s the downside to paying them? They may be adults legally, but are they really mature enough to handle all that money? Remember that statement about a special kind of stupidity and irresponsibility two paragraphs up? It happens all the time. Of course, there are plenty of examples of professional athletes screwing up even after making millions in a major professional league, but that happens to everyone, and after you’re out of school, you’re your own problem. Universities can’t be expected to be responsible for people after they’ve left the school, but they are responsible for them during school.

Another concern is that the bigger schools will buy the better high school student athletes. Really? Doesn’t this happen anyway, even with schools that aren’t breaking the rules? Still, if the university has the means to teach their students good ethics, they should, so it’s a concern.

The Solution

The best answer I have is to create an interest-bearing escrow account from which student athletes can withdrawal their fair share when they graduate. This is not a novel idea; others have considered it, and I don’t mean to take credit as the only one. A student athlete fund would give student athletes a much-needed and much-deserved financial boost on graduation, and — depending on how it’s implemented — could actually satisfy the concern of bigger schools buying up the good players.

Some Options

If they don’t graduate, allow them to withdrawal only a percentage of what they’d otherwise get, with the rest of the money remaining in the fund and increasing the amount future athletes can withdrawal. Why give a non-graduating player less money than one leaving with a degree? While the non-graduating player, in theory, needs the money more than the graduating player, the benefits of providing an incentive to graduate probably outweighs that. I could, of course, be wrong, because I don’t have all the information I need to answer that question, but let the experts determine these details.

Another good question for the number-crunchers to consider is the possibility of placing the same limit on withdrawals on any student that gets a professional contract with a major sports league (NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLB). Again, I don’t know whether that’s better. Remember, if it’s a common fund, the amount students could get might be tied into how much is in the pot (as opposed to a set amount), in which case the guys who really don’t need it don’t need to take from it.

Yet another question for the number-crunchers to consider is how to deal with players in different sports. Basketball and football players clearly bring in more money for the school then lacrosse players, so shouldn’t they get paid more? That seems fair. Warning: If you think this is all about fairness, think again. You know damn well that when fairness demands that men be paid much more than women under this thinking, there will be a cry of discrimination loud enough to drown out all logic you might have in support of it. Don’t worry, though; I’m sure universities will choose logic over political correctness. *sigh*

Details, Rob! Details!

So, how much do we pay them? This is yet another area where I honestly don’t know because I don’t have the data I need to form an opinion. I refuse to answer that question until I can do so knowledgeably. I wish more people would take that approach to political debate as well. 🙂

Just some food for thought. Considering we can’t get the NCAA to implement a football playoff system because it’s not immediately as profitable as the bowl system, I seriously doubt there’ll be a change without the government getting involved, which they shouldn’t.

Reminder: I’ll be interviewed by Fight Fans Radio on Monday, June 6. Listen in through UStream at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/fightfans-radio.

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