The Merits and Demerits of Paying Student-Athletes for Participating In College Sports

Collegiate athletics and sports competitions in America have come a long way since the first Crew match-up between Harvard and Yale universities in 1852. Although this first intercollegiate competition took place within the true context of sports and sportsmanship, future match-ups between the two universities – as early as 1855, saw Harvard field an ineligible participant (a graduate student) in order to win, as the early signs of the intense competitiveness of college sports began to show.

This incident was to define the later collegiate competitions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – the extreme desire for the prestige and commercial exposure associated with a win (or title wins) brought about unethical practices that have dogged college sports ever since.

Throughout the existence of these games, the US authorities have developed and implemented various laws and guidelines, in largely futile attempts, to reign in the commercialization of college sports, and to ensure that college sports remain in the amateur category (Smith “Pay for Play” 6). The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has always maintained that a clear line of demarcation should exist between college sports and the professional league.

The NCAA vouches for this separation by declaring that its interest is in protecting the exploitation of college students by rogue sports agents. In addition, it aims at protecting their overall academic and sports growth from premature collapse by the lure of the professional league payments. As such, NCAA rules forbid student-athletes from engaging in summer jobs that utilize their professional skills; student’s athletes automatically forfeit their college eligibility if they enter into professional drafts.

As a result, NCAA forbids the student-athletes from receiving any form of payment for their skills (Zimbalast 254). These, among other many restrictions, have rendered students-athletes virtual prisoners of the college sports’ industry – unable to make choices that can secure their future by exploiting their talents and skills for commercial purposes.

The point of disagreement for observers, many stakeholders, and analysts in collegiate sports is thus, whether college athletes (Beauchamp 2) should receive payment for their athletic participation for the duration that they are in the specific schools and colleges. According to authors Yost and Smith, the collegiate sports industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, which operates as a professional league.

Smith argues that many Americans view collegiate sports as amateur, yet they continuously expect pro-level standards from college sports – which they dully get (“Sports and Freedom” 166). Therefore, essentially, the American collegiate sports industry is a professional league.

The trainers involved in these sports are professional, and so are the coaches, who receive pro-level remuneration greater than that of professors, college presidents, and even some state governors (Yost 11). It is against this background that the authors argue that the athlete-students should receive some sort of monetary compensation. The student-athletes are the most critical entities of the collegiate sports’ industry, and as such, their exploits should earn them some form of income, their age, and education levels notwithstanding.

On the other end of the spectrum, author Zimbalast argues that the American college sports industry is irretrievably exploitative and morally polluted, and should undergo a major overhaul that should allow the student-athletes to receive a different form of compensation for their participation – not monetary payments (4).

In Schneider’s view, student athletes already receive too much in college scholarships, and thus it would be unfair to pay them for the sports they engage in (“College students’ perceptions” “232). Other arguments against the paying of students-athletes are that many athletics departments would not be able to pay the athletes, since they have constricted budgets.

According to Schneider, if the NCAA were to pay student-athletes then it would mean loosing its treasured non-profit status and be liable to paying taxes to the IRS (“payment of college” students 40). Title IX provisions would further require that all athletes in schools and colleges also receive payment, and this would be financially impossible for the NCAA to accomplish.

This paper will explain the arguments behind these two different schools of thought. The paper will analyze the proposition that the student-athletes should receive payments for participating in sports, since their performances in sports are the major reason for the growth of college sports’ industry to its current commercially successful status.

Conversely, the paper will explain the argument by authors such as Zimbalast that student-athletes should not receive monetary compensation in the form of stipends or salaries, but should have the leeway to exploit their talents for commercial purposes while still in college, combined with the view by Schneider and others that student-athletes should not receive monetary compensation at all.

To conclude, the paper will present a synthesis after analysis of the different viewpoints on the viability (or lack thereof) of paying student athletes for their sports exploits.

The synthesis will argue for a form of financial arrangement that holds the student-athletes’ earning in trust until they successfully complete their college studies. This kind of a financial trust fund will ensure that students who participate in college sports receive an equal amount of pre-set annual income kept in trust; the student-athlete should be able to access the funds after college.

This will ensure that the many college star athletes who do not make it to the professional leagues have a financial base to pursue other interests should their dreams of playing in the professional leagues not materialize. According to Yost, fewer than 2% of student athletes make the transition to the professional leagues (5). Therefore, the likelihood of failing to make the cut for the pro-leagues is always a likely prospect for the student-athletes.

In support of the view that student-athletes should receive some sort of payment, proponents Smith and Yost, portray a picture of college sports with erstwhile commercial leanings. According to Smith, the commercialization of college dates back as early as 1903 when Harvard University built the first college stadium in America, subsequently opening a window for interested parties outside the realm of universities to stake a claim to collegiate sports (“Sports and Freedom” 165).

Today, many colleges worth their reputation have built, or are building massive college stadiums in an effort to not only rake in as much from match attendance as possible, but also to outdo rival colleges in the design and aesthetic appeal of the stadiums.

In Yost’s view, most of the student-athletes on scholarships have no business being in the institutions of higher learning in the first place (7). In fact, the intention of these students is to play sports and therefore ought to receive payments for their ‘work done’. Yost mentions a revealing and poignant interview that he held with Phil Hughes, the Kansas State University associate athletic director for student services (7).

Hughes brands student-athletes as ‘Entertainment products’ for their specific colleges and the larger public. Hughes claims profoundly that the only reason that student-athletes receive scholarships and their every need catered for is so that the billion-dollar college sports’ machine continues to grow. If student athletes are veritable entertainers, it follows that they should receive payment for their ‘entertainment services’, amateur or not.

Additionally, Yost argues that many of the student-athletes are born to play, while the rest of the students were born to learn, and according to him, once the concerned authorities realize this important fact, they should then allow the student-athletes to play in professional leagues while still in college, and thus earning an income.

Furthermore, Yost posits, for most of the student-athletes, college is only a means to an end, and being so, concerned authorities should make their stay in college worth the while for these student-athletes by offering a form of financial gain to them. Therefore, expecting student-athletes to keep up with the rest of the student body is to ask too much of them.

In supporting payment for students-athletes, Smith argues that Americans ask for professional level games from collegiate games, yet they hypocritically insist on identifying college sports as amateur sports (“Sports and Freedom”166). Professional teams of coaches and trainers, who receive payments that match the remuneration of counterparts in the professional leagues, manage college teams.

Many colleges that participate in premiere intercollegiate competitions receive sponsorship deals that run into millions of dollars. Furthermore, the NCAA signs broadcasting rights that also involve multi-million figures. In light of all the commercialization of collegiate sports, it would only be fare to offer the student-athletes monetary compensation, especially factoring that very few of the athletes further proceed to the pro-leagues like NBA and NFL.

Other authors like Schneider and Zimbalist argue against the payment of student athletes. The authors argue that the state of collegiate sports as it stands today needs a review of its aim, mission, and vision. Zimbalist first paints the picture of an NCAA that has lost direction.

According to Zimbalist the NCAA manual that professes its goal as setting a clear distinction between college sports and professional sports is misleading and overtaken by time and events, since the line between college and professional sports is vague, it exists at all (3). Zimbalist argues that student-athletes should not receive monetary payments for participating in sports, but authorities should allow them more ‘leg-room’ to exploit their talents while still in school and college.

To begin with, Zimbalist recommends that the students should be able to receive gifts worth more than the $200 value-cap that NCAA has set for them. Currently, many of the student-athletes who toil through out the entire games season are only spectators when coaches, sponsors and other such interested parties share gifts like championship rings and commemorative merchandises among themselves.

This scenario is inherently unfair to the athletes who have worked hard and sacrificed a lot for the titles. Denying them the opportunities to receive congratulatory gifts higher than $200 in value in fact sets the platform for underground dealings for, and financial manipulation of the athletes. According to Zimbalist, allowing them to receive gifts for their exploits negates the need for paying them.

The NCAA should further allow the student-athletes to engage in summer jobs and activities that play to their professional skills. Under current NCAA rules, industries cannot contract the student-athletes into jobs that utilize their professional skills. Again, Zimbalist portrays NCAA that is out to stifle all available potential sources of income for the student-athletes.

The vast commercial interest in collegiate sports, such as a stance opens up a window for student-athletes to engage in corrupt activities. The fact that everyone, coaches and other authorities, expect the students-athletes would seem to benefit from the college sports, these student are likely to involve in corruption so that they can profit a well.

Furthermore, Zimbalist argues that student-athletes should participate in professional drafts but still be eligible for college admission if the authority does not draft them or choose to opt out of a professional career. According to NCAA regulations, student-athletes who enter into pro-drafts are not eligible for college sports anymore.

Zimbalist contends that this sort of limitation of the student-athletes’ commercial options insofar exploiting their sports talents is unjust, considering that the entire college sports industry bases on commercially utilizing the student-athletes very talents.

In further support of the argument that student athletes should not receive payments for their sports, Schneider points out that the student-athletes should not receive any payments because they receive huge scholarship funds that strain the colleges’ funds, with some student athletes receiving as much as $120,000 in annual scholarship funds (“college students’ perception” 232).

Furthermore, the athletics departments that should pay for the student-athletes are not necessarily financially able to do so, and they have budgets usually limited to paying their staff (Bradley 13). To ask the athletics departments of various colleges to pay the salaries to athlete-students will therefore not be financially viable.

Additionally, according to writers Rushin (68) and Isenberg (26), the Title IX by-laws would, if student-athletes were to receive pay for engaging in sports, require for compensation of all players of different sports– a situation likely to cause administrative nightmares for many colleges in the country.

In both schools of thought, the particular reasons for and against the paying of student athletes have their merits and demerits. Writing in support of the idea of student athletes receiving payments for their activities, Smith and Yost state that it would be unjust, even immoral to deny student athletes a small piece of the huge cake that is the billion-dollar college sports industry.

As the ‘Entertainment Products’ the student-athletes should receive a certain amount of stipend for ably and skillfully displaying their talents week in week out for fans and the entire American nation to watch and enjoy. Its proponents have not tackled however, the modalities of implementing such a payment plan.

Technicalities like how much each student-athlete should receive, and whether such amounts are subject to income cap, are likely to pose implementation hitches.

On the other hand, opponents of the idea of paying the student-athletes offer a variety of reasons against actualization of such a plan. Zimbalist advocates for the gradual repeal of laws that restrict the student-athletes from exploiting their talents outside the colleges for personal gain.

According to him, such measures would negate the need to pay the student-athletes. Schneider argues against paying the student-athletes because they are already receiving their talents’ worth of finances from their scholarship grants. Bradley further argues that the athletics departments of major colleges are already too financially limited to undertake the additional burden of paying the stipends for the student-athletes.

Further, if the NCAA were to pay the stipends it would mean the organization would lose its non-profit status and be subject to taxes – a situation the NCAA would want to avoid. The opponents of the argument for the payment of student-athletes however refuse to note the ephemeral nature of college life for these students, thus the need for a sort of financial fall-back plan incase their desire to join the professional leagues does not materialize.

In conclusion, the paper analyses the merits and demerits of paying college athletes for their sporting endeavors. Proponents of the need to pay the student athletes argue that it is only right and just that the student-athletes should share in the huge monetary benefits available in the collegiate sports industry – a billion dollar industry.

Opponents argue that there is already enough money in the student-athletes accounts from the high sports scholarships and grants they receive, and that it would not be economically viable to offer stipends to them.

The two arguments present a point of congruence, which leads to this paper’s synthesis – that authorities create sports fund for student athletes, that the student-athletes should then access these funds after completing their college studies. This arrangement offers the best solution for the students, and they will be able to play and still receive a pay that will have accrued to levels that they can then invest in other ventures should their goals of playing in the professional leagues fail to materialize.

This arrangement ensures that the student-athletes are able to concentrate on their studies without the distraction that receiving a constant stipend would create, and also have some funds for pursuing other interests incase they opt out of college, or playing sports altogether. It also reduces the administrative and implementation hiccups that would arise from paying student-athletes a regular stipend.

Works Cited

Beauchamp, Erin. “Athletes already compensated fairly”. The NCAA News 2 June 1996: 2.

Bradley, Michael. “Pay for play: Should college athletes get a piece of the pie?” College Sports 14 March 1994: 12.15.

Isenberg, Marc. College athletes should be compensated. Chicago Sun-Times 26 June 1994.

Rushin, Steve. “Inside the moat”. Sports Illustrated 3 March 199: 68.

Schneider, Raymond. “Payment of college student athletes: Student-athletes’ and Administrators’ perceptions”. International Sports Journal 4.6 (2000): 44-55.

Schneider, Raymond. “College students’ perceptions on the payment of intercollegiate Student-athletes.” College Student Journal 35.2 (2001): 232.

Smith, Ronald. Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Smith, Ronald. Sports and Freedom: The Rise of Big-Time College Athletics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Yost, Mark. Varsity Green: A Behind the Scenes Look at Culture and Corruption in College Athletics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010

Zimbalist, Andrew. Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-Time College Sports. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.