Pay For Play

Increasingly those who claim to be in the know suggest that athletes at the NCAA Division I level should get paid to play the games they play in college — especially the revenue sports such as basketball and football. The argument runs that paying the athletes to play will circumvent the sorts of scandal that are all-too common in collegiate sports these days.

For example, Zion Williamson, the extraordinary basketball player who recently completed a sensational Freshman year at Duke University finds himself involved in a scandal resulting from the claim that Nike gave his mother a considerable sum of money to make sure he would thereafter wear their product. Allegedly, Nike also made it “convenient” for him to attend Duke University which is a “Nike” University — i.e., a university that  receives (as does its basketball coach) baskets full of money to have their players wear their shoes and clothing. In a word, the players become walking endorsements for the Nike products, which makes it obligatory that young kids spend many, many dollars to wear Nike products worn by their heroes and heroines (and frequently made in sweat shops in the “Third World”).  It’s allegedly been going on for many years, but the F.B.I. has recently become involved because laws may have been broken.

Clearly, there are moral laws broken here and there, but we tend to look the other way as long as our team continues to win. But the question remains: should those athletes simply get paid for the job they do, since there is such a huge amount of money involved? Surely, they are the ones earning the money their colleges and universities pocket after the season and the tournaments are over. Laws or no laws, it simply seems to be the fair way to doing things. And if it reduces the instances of fraud and corruption so much the better.

Nearly 20 years ago, in the Fall of 2001, I published a paper in the Montana Professor in which I argued that athletes at the NCAA Division I level (in the revenue sports) should be paid to play their sports. I gave my reasons and I still think my plan is more honest than anything I have heard recently that is supposed to solve what is clearly a moral problem — if not a legal one. Here’s the heart and soul of my argument:

[A]t the Division I level . . .  I would recommend eliminating all pretense by admitting that major sports at that level are a proving ground for professional athletics–especially football, basketball (both men’s and women’s), and, to a lesser extent, baseball. Young people who choose to participate in athletics at that level should not be required to attend classes and they should be paid a fair salary to play: athletes at the major universities thereby becoming members of minor league teams wearing school colors and sponsored by the universities and their alumni. . . . .

In the event that some of the athletes on these teams actually want to pursue an education, they can pay tuition along with everyone else. Presumably, they will be better able to do this with the money they make from their sport. This step would remove the hypocrisy that exists at present, and the universities would be able to apply the most promising of current business practices to organized sport, without worrying about interference from the NCAA. In the event that the costs of fielding a professional team become prohibitive, the universities can eliminate play-for-pay and move to the Division II level where, even as things now stand, financial losses from athletics are typically considerably less than at the Division I level. Eliminating athletic “scholarships,”  would further reduce costs. In the event that costs are still prohibitive, the universities would have to eliminate some of the sports programs–a reasonable proposal given the large number of sports that involve such a small number of students (and one that is already being adopted by a number of Division I schools). Dropping football at a typical Division II school that currently offers “scholarships” to athletes, for example, can save that school close to $200,000 a year, according to a recent NCAA study. To encourage greater student participation in sports, a larger share of the athletic budget could then be allocated to intramural sports, which involve a great many more students.

The strength of this model is simply that it is more honest, since very few of the athletes in major sports at the Division I level are students in anything but the loosest sense of that term. On a more positive note, since the perks that athletes currently receive at the Division I level–posh living accommodations, scholarships, meals, medical treatment, automobiles, etc.–“do not come close to representing the value of the athletes to the school in publicity, revenues, etc.,” this model would acknowledge that these athletes are professionals and treat them accordingly.*

This may not solve the problem altogether, because where such huge sums of money are involved there will always be corruption. But it does, as I say, seem to be the most honest way to deal with the problem. One thing for sure, it will bury the myth once and for all that these kids are “student-athletes.” They are athletes who may choose, if they pay tuition, to be students.


*For the complete essay, “The Tail That Wags The Dog,” see my blog main page and check the URL in the comment for a clearer copy.


7 thoughts on “Pay For Play

  1. Hugh, good post. I agree. I think a payment schedule could be constructed that would allow the athlete to pay for tuition, room and board. Yet, with greed and betting, no change will impact folks who use money to bribe and influence. The legalized betting is becoming a big problem. Bryant Gumbel’s “Real Sports” had a good piece on betting a few weeks ago. Keith

    • My plan allows the colleges to bid for players and pay them top dollar. Just like a business! Then the athletes could pay for their tuition out of pocket if they want an education. Few would, I imagine.

  2. Dr. Curtler,

    I would urge implementation of your proposals for both Division I and Division II schools. Sports clubs not affiliated with the university should be the center of professional and semi-professional training. This works very well in the rest of the world where high-school and collegiate teams are predominantly intramural.

    Athletes who want to play at a higher level need to be selected by a local sports club. (BTW: It is common practice for European soccer clubs that train young players to have a policy that no parents are allowed at practices. Wouldn’t that change the dynamics?!)

    Division III schools strike a more acceptable balance between student and student-athlete, that is to say that you cannot be an athlete unless you are a successful student. There are no purely athletic scholarships and none of the associated indentured servitude — at least in principle.

    In sum, I support your proposal to prevent the athletic tails from wagging the academic dogs. I shall not hold my breath awaiting these changes, however.

    Respects and regards,

    Jerry Stark

      • This brings to mind the experience of one of my best students, who attended the University of Wisconsin in pursuit of her Sociology Ph.D.

        In addition to her substantial fellowship, and also due to her interest in hockey, she was employed as a tutor/mentor for a varsity hockey player. He was a terrible student who had no intention of achieving a degree. He only wanted to play professional hockey in the NHL. His only interest in academic matters was to pass enough courses to maintain his athletic eligibility.

        From his point of view, it was his tutor’s responsibility to see that he maintained his eligibility, not his. She was never successful in changing his attitude.

        Ultimately, after several years, he earned neither a degree nor a place on an NHL team. He dropped out of college to play on a minor league hockey team with hopes of playing his way into the NHL.

        He was on full athletic scholarships the entire time he spent at UW Madison. What a waste of university resources!

        The athletic tail was, indeed, wagging the academic dog in this instance.

        At least. my former student went on to excel in her Ph.D. studies, but she did no more tutoring for hockey players. Fool her once…

        Respects and regards,
        Jerry Stark

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