COMMENTARY | Though we all know college-level student-athletes are not allowed to be paid, we also know it’s an open secret that star players are often compensated, off the books, by benefactors ranging from private businesses to college fundraisers to team boosters. Perks are offered, under the table, to help star athletes commit to a university. Landing popular superstars and fielding winning teams can help universities rake in millions through fundraising, merchandising, and packing the stands. In the wake of athletes and college teams getting in trouble for violating NCAA rules regarding perks and cash, many are wondering if we should just go ahead and pay college athletes. According to TIME, many think that student-athletes deserve a cut of the big bucks they help their schools earn.
I recently read TIME’s cover story about why we should pay student-athletes. TIME writer Sean Gregory says it’s unethical to bar college athletes from profiting from their own skill and popularity while they help their schools rake in millions, reports Sports Illustrated. Gregory raises many important issues and is correct to address the ethical questions regarding NCAA rules against payment or profit-seeking. While I agree that it is ethically questionable to prevent college athletes from being able to sell their own signatures, on their own time, I wholeheartedly disagree that college athletes should be entitled to a “cut” of the profits they allegedly bring in to their respective colleges and universities.
Student-athletes are students, not professionals. For better or worse, they are supposed to be pursuing an education. Should they wish for profit, they should play for profit…not on a university team.
Arguably, instead of colleges primarily profiting from star athletes, it could be said that star athletes primarily benefit from their colleges. Would people pay to see Johnny Manziel play semi-pro football until he could sign with the NFL? Or do they only turn out in droves because Manziel suits up for a well-known university? Do the players bring glory to the university, or do the universities bring glory to the players? This takes much of the wind out of the argument that college athletes are indentured servants who are being unfairly denied a cut of “profits” they generate. Such “profits” would not occur without the existing name recognition and infrastructure of the universities.
And the reputation of college sports would greatly suffer if the NCAA reversed course on disallowing profiteering. College sports are often seen as a wholesome alternative to the big leagues, where news about salaries and bonuses and the antics of millionaire athletes seems to be just as prevalent as news about who wins and who loses. Spectators root for a school, not a superstar, in college sports, and are better for it. Allow college players to pursue perks and profits and you remove that wholesomeness and camaraderie and turn NCAA football into a junior version of the NFL, complete with all the NFL sideshow drama.
If college athletes could be paid, what would then happen to the existing system and tradition of scholarships? Obviously, it would not be fair to give scholarships to athletes are profiting from their signature and paid appearances, especially at publicly-funded universities. A student who can sell his or her signature and reap thousands of dollars for an endorsement should pay his or her own tuition and living expenses. This presents a myriad of complications and will shatter team camaraderie.
At what point does a college athlete, able to sell his or her signature for profit and receive payment for endorsements and appearances, become ineligible for a scholarship? Would a profiting athlete still be eligible for tutoring programs normally given to student-athletes? How large of a gulf will develop between superstar non-scholarship athletes and their humble teammates who feel lucky to have gotten a scholarship? Will a no-name scholarship lineman want to get bruised and banged up to protect a quarterback who makes $150,000 a year?
And, of course, profiteering should be forbidden at public universities, which are meant to educate, not entertain, the masses. Though profiteering undeniably exists, to formalize its approval would be a death knell to higher education. In no way should my tax dollars go to provide a lucrative forum for college athletes to pursue profit. How are we supposed to argue for better moral and ethical behavior in our young people when we throw in the towel and allow student-athletes to become paid athletes? What message does that send to our youth?
No longer are youth sports primarily played for love of the game. No longer are college sports played for the glory of the school and its alumni. Instead, we have dropped all pretenses and admitted that it is all for profit. Money is king. Is that really the message we want?