Why Paying College Athletes is a Ridiculous Notion

Should college athletes be paid? pros and consScandals are everywhere in college athletics. Over the past year, we’ve seen Terrelle Pryor get paid to autograph memorabilia at Ohio State, Cam Newtown get mixed up in allegations that his father tried to bribe Mississippi State and, most recently, that half the Miami football team was enjoying free prostitutes. Anytime a new scandal comes up, someone in the mainstream media, with nothing else to write about, likes to pose the question: Should college athletes get paid?

ESPN and the Wall Street Journal have made a case for paying college athletes and most recently, Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer joined in on the fun with an insanely long article in the Atlantic. He gives plenty of reasons why college athletes should be paid to play—even comparing student-athletes to slaves—but fails to outline any sort of plan to pull this off. Here’s the main point of his argument…

For all the outrage, the real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited, it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence—“amateurism” and the “student-athlete”—are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes. The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.

The basis for many people’s argument, including Branch’s, is that these college athletes are poor and this is why they resort to taking improper benefits. Since the NCAA and big-time Division I schools are profiting from these athletes, aren’t the students entitled to get a piece of the revenue pie?

Can we PLEEEAASE STOP with this argument!? This will NEVER, EVER happen, so we need to put this argument to bed. I don’t like to give out too much personal information about myself, but lets just say that my job requires me to know a lot about college athletics. So I know a little bit about the subject.  The notion that student-athletes should get paid is silly for a couple reasons.

Suggesting we pay college athletes as a solution to keep them from breaking NCAA rules is like giving a whining child in a supermarket candy just so the kid will shut the fuck up.  As a more extreme example, it’s like deciding to make cocaine legal because too many people have been killed trying to smuggle it.  Why should we solve a problem of bad behavior by handing out rewards?

Later in the article, Branch cites a University of North Carolina trustee who claims this…

Don Curtis, a UNC trustee, told me that impoverished football players cannot afford movie tickets or bus fare home. Curtis is a rarity among those in higher education today, in that he dares to violate the signal taboo: “I think we should pay these guys something.

WAAAAHH!! …The UNC football players couldn’t go to the movies!… BOO.FUCKING. HOO! They don’t have money just like EVERY OTHER FUCKING COLLEGE STUDENT IN AMERICA!

HELLOOO! These kids are in college! They’re supposed to be poor! The whole reason people go to college is so that they can one day not be poor. Branch’s argument is complete bullshit.

Here’s some advice to those deprived college athletes: Get a work-study job on campus or a summer job like everyone else. Those jobs are a piece of cake most of the time and if you’re a big athlete on campus, you can probably get away with not going anyway (or a student could go to SMC review and start a side business for extra cash).

The majority of Division I athletes are getting full rides to go to college. If you consider that many private schools will cost over $30k per year, or $120k for four years, I’d say that’s a pretty good deal. Most of those athletes are not going to become professional athletes, so I’d say a free education that will set up a student-athlete for the future is still a pretty good deal.

For the few college athletes who do become pro, the college level will give a student the opportunity to showcase his skills to professional teams, which in time will make those select people rich beyond their wildest dreams. Either way, it’s a win for a student-athlete.


OK. Let’s just say that the NCAA decided these students do indeed deserve to be paid. Could it be done? The answer is definitively NO.

The only sports that have any chance to make money in college athletics are football and basketball and that’s only for Division I sports. There are over 1,200 NCAA member schools, spanning all three divisions and the vast majority of those are squeaking by on student activity fees and fundraising efforts.

But for argument’s sake, let’s focus on Division I schools. Since Division I schools are required to have at least 14 sponsored sports, (thought most have many more) the schools typically have to use the money made from football and basketball to fund all the other programs. That revenue goes to fund sports that most people don’t give a shit about such as cross-country, swimming or field hockey.

So when the University of Michigan packs out its 100,000+ seat football stadium, while it plays on NBC against Notre Dame, it takes some of the revenue from that game so its women’s golf team can play in a tournament in Puerto Rico.

But this isn’t even the case for all Division I schools. In fact, most Division I schools lose money. According to a November 2010 article in Sports Illustrated, of the schools that play Division I-A football, 106 lost money in 2009!

Well, what about the school’s that make those big time BCS Bowl Games with huge sponsors that are shelling out millions of dollars? Surely a team that qualified for a BCS Bowl Game would bring in big money each year right? Wrong—the exact opposite is true. Here’s another excerpt from the SI article…

Very few bowls do, in fact, sell out. Aware of this, their directors require a ticket commitment, which obligates the purchase of thousands of tickets at face value. Schools must then resell those tickets or risk losses that can run into seven figures. Before Internet ticket sites democratized the market, the deal made sense to the participating schools. Now, for all but the biggest games, fans can avoid paying full price—as they must when they go through the school’s ticket office. Tickets to the 2009 Music City Bowl were available on StubHub for 19 cents.

Ohio State earned $18.5 million for making it to the Rose Bowl in January 2010. That’s a serious boost to any team’s bottom line. So it would have been, if the Buckeyes actually got to keep the money, which they did not. The $18.5 million went to the Big Ten, where it was added to a pool of bowl revenue that was then sliced into 12 shares—one for each team, one for the league office. That still left Ohio State with a tidy $2.2 million to spend, which the Buckeyes did. Ohio State’s team travel costs were $352,727. Unsold tickets ran the school a cool $144,710. The bill to transport, feed and lodge the band and cheerleaders came to $366,814. Throw in entertainment, gifts and sundry other expenses, and the Buckeyes lost $79,597.

So as you can see, college athletic programs are in no position to pay players money. Even some of the biggest programs are barely getting by as it is. Paying top athletes a salary would cripple athletic programs and force many schools to eliminate some of its sports altogether—and that would be the real travesty.

2 comments for “Why Paying College Athletes is a Ridiculous Notion

  1. Eric Waters
    September 20, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    At the core, I agree with you, its a bad idea that would be a monstrous thing to keep up.
    Here is a way it would work short term, but it would eventually fall apart, which would be a good thing.
    The rules:
    1) No university can actually pay any athlete.
    2) Any booster, alumni, agent can pay any athlete however much they want.
    3) All payments must be made public. The athlete must pay taxes on this income.
    4) No excuse to leave early for the pro’s now, they would be contracted to stay. (Optional)

    At first, it would be the wild west. The big football schools would dominate, but they do anyway. The skill positions would garner big payouts at first. Sooner or later the O and D line would start complaining about how they are not getting their worth. A high school phenom becomes a so-so collegian, do they want their money back? Then throw in title IX and it would fall apart, then, maybe, we would never have to endure the argument again.

    By the way, the Ohio State and Miami situations also prove your points. They weren’t taking money to help their poor infirm mothers, feeding their siblings, or generally keeping the wolf from their door (in Reggie Bush’s case a very expensive door), their purposes were a little south of those noble goals.

  2. September 23, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Agreed Eric. Michael Wilbon made a similar argument in the link I included. He said that they should be able to pursue “entrepreneurial pursuits,” such as getting paid to endorse products. But like you said, they would create a new set of problems that you described.

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