Should NCAA Athletes Be Paid?

Canvas money bag on top of loose bills.

By Pierce Lapham

For years, the debate on whether or not college athletes should receive salaries has been a consistently heated discussion within the sports world. Every year we’ve seen the same spectacle: packed stadiums, massive broadcasting deals, tons of merchandise, extraordinary social media attention, nationally recognized players and high-profile coaches. These events bring in vast amounts of profit, according to the NCAA in 2019 the athletic departments alone produced $10.6 billion dollars of revenue. Everyone involved with college athletics profits; everyone except for the athletes themselves. 

The top 25 football coaches earn an average of $5.2 million dollars per year and the top 25 basketball coaches earn an average of $3.2 million dollars per year. Furthermore, the NCAA makes roughly $800 million dollars per year off the TV broadcasting rights to the Men’s Division 1 Basketball Tournament alone. Not only are the coaches and the NCAA organization making loads of funds, but the schools themselves also receive high yields. UCLA which has the largest endorsement deal of any school signed a 14 year, $260 million dollar contract with Adidas in 2018. In addition, Texas (UT Austin) produced $223.9 million dollars of revenue from their sports programs. It is evidently clear that everybody but the athletes are lining their pockets and at a first glance it may seem like blatant exploitation. But in reality, the situation is far more complex. In order to fully grasp the circumstances, let’s assess both sides of the argument. 

Arguments for college athletes receiving salaries: 

  • They bring in lots of money for their schools
    • College athletes bring in millions of dollars for their schools, thus they should receive a cut. This argument is especially true for notable football and basketball players like Trevor Lawrence or Jalen Suggs. 
  • They give their schools lots of exposure 
    • College athletics provides schools with incredible exposure which can have a variety of benefits. For instance, according to ESPN a study proved that when a football team rises from mediocre to great, applications increase 18.7% and if a team improves its win total by five games in a season, alumni donations go up 28%.
  • Sports takes away from the amount of time they have for school
    • Sports consume a significant amount of time. It is incredibly difficult to keep up with classes when you’re a D1 athlete. When all that work comes with no financial compensation some begin to question whether their commitment is worth their grades. 
  • Athletes need spending money 
    • In order to remain at a high level, athletes must train, eat right and be well accommodated. All of these things add up and cost money, and not even scholarships pay for this pocket money. 
  • Injury Potential
    • In all sports there is always the potential for injury, injuries can often result in lost scholarships – which are guaranteed one year at a time – or lost opportunities to go pro. This risk demands the need for financial compensation. 
  • Playing is like working 
    • College athletes spend their time training and playing their respective sport instead of working and making money. A 2017 NCAA survey showed that D1 athletes dedicate an average of 35 hours per week to their sport. If they worked for average minimum wage which is roughly $7.25 per hour, they could earn over $1,000 a month. 

Arguments against college athletes receiving a salary: 

  • Students don’t get salaries, they get scholarships
    • Instead of getting paid salaries or endorsements, athletes get paid through scholarships. Albeit, the average scholarship is 18,000 and this does not cover many expenses. On top of that, it is estimated that only 1% of students are on a full ride.
  • Secondary sports would take severe hits
    • If universities began paying athletes, it would result in numerous less profitable programs being cut. Only 25 of the 1100 athletic programs under the NCAA had a net positive revenue in 2019 and the amount earned in men’s basketball and men’s football subsidize most of the other sports. Essentially, a few athletes getting paid would sever the athletic dreams of many 
  • Determining salaries would be chaotic 
    • It would be extremely difficult to determine how much each player should earn. Not all players are worth the same, the starting quarterback is worth more than the backup left guard. There are so many questions that arise when determining salaries. Which sports get paid? How much does the coach make? Who’s making these decisions? Do all sports get paid the same? Do men and women get paid the same? 
  • Rich universities would benefit the most 
    • Assuming this process would be carried out without heavy regulation, the gap between the top universities and the rest of the pack would increase. This is because universities with higher budgets would be better positioned to sign outstanding players. As a result, college athletics would become increasingly less competitive and booster influence could potentially skyrocket. 
  • Title IX could make payment structures confusing 
    • Title IX makes it so that colleges must provide equal opportunity for male and female athletes. Would this rule apply to pay structures? How would this affect the system? 
  • Athletes have other options 
    • Athletes looking to advance in their careers don’t have to enter college. When an athlete commits to a school they are doing so with the understanding that they won’t be getting paid. There are other options for athletes, such as playing in other professional leagues. For instance, this past year Jalen Green, a top 5 ESPN basketball player out of high school committed to the G league where he is now making over 500,000 dollars.
  • Paying college athletes misses the point of college
    • College is about preparing students for the real world and providing them with an education. Some argue that college athletes are no different than other college students. 

Both assertions present perfectly valid and reasonable claims which is why this topic has been so heavily debated for the past few decades. 

In my opinion, while the reasons for college athletes being paid are legitimate, implementing a system where the athletes earn direct salaries would be too complicated under the existing circumstances. Instead, athletes should be able to profit off of their endorsements, name, or image, but not earn direct salaries. 

Recently, steps have been made towards paying college athletes. In 2019, lawmakers in California signed the Fair Pay to Play Act  which allows college athletes in the state to sign endorsement deals with brands and would enable athletes to profit off of their media revenue. They would also be able to hire agents without losing eligibility. If the bill passes it will go into effect on January 1, 2023. The NCAA had contested this law as it would provide California schools with an unfair advantage in athlete recruitment and thus they had stated that, if enacted, they would ban California schools from championship competitions, which is why USC and Stanford have opposed the bill. This bill is one of many that have been introduced country-wide. 

As a result of the mounting pressure from legislators and the media, in April of 2020 the NCAA Board of Governors announced they would support rule changes allowing athletes to earn money from their likeness, image and name. However, the deals would have to come from third parties so that they would not be considered employees of their universities.