Should College Athletes Get Paid? Ending the Debate, Once and for All

Both sides of the argument are passionate. Both are largely well intentioned. And both tend to give short shrift to the obvious.

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Reuters/Alex Gallardo/Chris Keane


To pay or not to pay? Such is the question facing big-time college sports, a question born of disparity: Football and men's basketball players generate billions in revenue for an intercollegiate athletic-industrial complex, yet receive a paltry cut of the profits via scholarships. Angina over this arrangement has flared in recent weeks, in part because the NCAA pocketed an astonishing $771 million in television money for its just-completed men's basketball tournament. On one side of the debate are the defenders of amateur purity, asserting that pay-for-play would destroy campus sports as we know them; on the other side are the fiscal reformers, arguing that the status quo is both unfair and untenable. Both sides are passionate. Both are largely well intentioned. And both tend to give short shrift to the obvious.

Namely, the fact that college athletes already are being paid.

The father of former Auburn University quarterback Cam Newton allegedly solicited $180,000 from a second school in exchange for his son's Heisman Trophy-winning services. Football players at Ohio State recently were suspended for selling memorabilia and receiving discounted tattoos. Just last week, five other former Auburn players said that they were given sexual favors—shades of Spike Lee's He Got Game—and cash while being recruited by and playing for the school, including post-game "money handshakes" from friends of the program.

Of course, none of this is new: from early 20th century Ivy League football to John Wooden-era UCLA super-booster Sam Gilbert to former USC running back Reggie Bush returning his Heisman statuette in the wake of a cash 'n' agents scandal, college sports long have featured an underground economy, because talented young athletes forever have been worth more than the above-board value of a scholarship. And since underground economies by definition involve corruption and rule breaking, almost everyone in the pay-for-play debate agrees that money handshakes are a problem.

Thing is, they ought to be a solution.

Want to mute the pay-for-play debate while restoring a dollop of credibility to the wheezing Rube Goldberg contraption of increasingly indefensible hypocrisy that is top-flight college sports? Then split the difference. Don't pay campus athletes. But do allow them to be paid. Eliminate amateurism—the outdated philosophy that says jocks can't receive any form of compensation, not even fruit and bagels—and bring the underground college sports economy into the light, treating it like the vast, untapped resource that it is.

In short: legalize money handshakes. And free tattoos. And anything else college athletes can score through the sheer dint of their rare and valuable talents.

Hands out, Jock America. Without shame.

Look, there's no denying that football and men's basketball players create a great big geyser of cash with every touchdown and jump shot, a greenback shower that douses celebrity coaches and behind-the-scenes bureaucrats alike. It would be nice - just, even -- if the young men working themselves to the point of physical harm received something more than room, board, tuition, and books for their trouble. Problem is, having university athletic departments pay athletes market salaries is utterly impractical. For one, college sports currently works a lot like health insurance: In the latter, the healthy subsidize the care and treatment of the sick; in the former, the sports that make money from ticket sales, television rights and licensing fees (i.e., football and men's basketball) subsidize everything else. Dip in to the kitty to pay Newton something approaching his actual value to Auburn, estimated at $3.5 million? Say goodbye to men's tennis, women's lacrosse, and all the other cute-but-money-losing sports currently enjoyed on campus.

Moreover, say hello to a probable Title IX lawsuit.

Indeed, the biggest problem with paying players isn't the math; it's the legal and structural chaos that would result. In an interview with PBS's Frontline that aired last week, NCAA president Mark Emmert said it would be "utterly unacceptable ... to convert students into employees." Emmert had reason to be adamant. What happens when college athletes become employees? Can they collectively bargain? Can they strike? Do injured players receive workman's comp? Are players at state schools eligible for subsequent retirement benefits? Do only football and men's basketball players receive salaries? Should a star point guard earn more than a third-string center? Should an All-American quarterback earn more than his entire offensive line? Who decides?

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Patrick Hruby is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to Sports on Earth, ESPN.com, and Washingtonian magazine, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. He is a former adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

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