Toward Basic Rights for College Athletes, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Taylor Branch forwarded me a spirited exchange he had with a reader over his recent piece on how the tactics used by the Mizzou protestors could be directed towards getting college athletes paid. The reader says he “works in college athletics reform matters” and once worked “for years in NCAA compliance.” His opening salvo to Taylor:

This whole pay debate truly is dead, because full scholarship football and basketball D1 NCAA athletes already are paid. Overpaid. They will never get salaries the way the media decry. Those “four million” non-athlete students of whom you wrote work primarily to pay for their tuition, so they can work to get an education to better their lives, while the athletes of whom you apologize get that education FOR FREE. Full scholarship athletes (all D1 football and basketball players) depart college with not a single cent of debt.

The four million non-athlete students also, by the way, work crappy jobs (not playing games—real work) so they can eat.

They don’t get the elaborate full meal plans nor the full training tables with steak nor the unlimited 24-hour-a-day snacks and beverages nor all of the off-campus cash per diems. The four million work crappy jobs to pay their rent, to pay their water bills, to pay their electric bills and, if they're lucky, pay for cable.  

Ever been in the athletc dorm/palaces at Oregon or Tennessee or USC or Penn State? I have; I actually WORK in intercollegiate athletics, and they are obscene, relative to the rest of campus. Call me old school (I’m rather young), but you have no clue just how much these athletes get. The BEST of everything.

To continue, those four million work to pay for laundry, to pay for tutoring, to pay for their books, to travel home, for occasional new clothes. Athletes pay for nothing. Not one thing! They get huge stipends (the new, so called “cost of attendance” that any grad student would die for) to spend on whatever they wish. Again, they have ZERO expense.

They aren’t doing research and they aren’t writing important works. They are playing games for money.

Full scholarship athletes get free PR for their chosen profession. I would’ve loved that as an undergrad going into the world. They get free media training, the best internships, free summer school, first dibs on ALL classes at the beginning of each semester, free travel staying in the best of the best hotels.

They are kings and want for nothing. You and the media want to see checks and bank deposits? Here ya go: Convert all of their free stuff to cash. Sport Management researchers have been for years. Add up a four-year all expense scholarship to any public flagship. Housing, books, travel, etc. WELL over a quarter million in real worth. Yeah, they’re not paid.

Do your research, Taylor.

Taylor replies:

Thanks for your comments. As far as I can tell, they are driven mostly by envy or resentment toward college athletes in the revenue sports. You may look up to them as kings, or deride them as spoiled and over-privileged, but you discard logic for spite when you call them overpaid.

If revenue athletes were overpaid, the NCAA could simply allow the market to deflate their compensation to an appropriate level. In the real world, the NCAA is terrified of the market precisely because the opposite would happen. You should know, as a former NCAA compliance worker, that the whole purpose of the NCAA rulebook is to stamp out market forces that would compete for the services of high-skill athletes at levels higher than scholarship restrictions.

My goal is not to hand down decrees about who must pay and be paid, or how much. That’s what the NCAA does. On the contrary, I’m saying that college athletes deserve the same right that you and I enjoy to seek fair compensation for our talent and value.

The reader again:

Of course faculty resent athletics. They work at institutions of higher education with the purpose to research and to teach in order to further society. They do so in crumbling buildings and daily fear of budget cuts all while wimp university presidents allow the athletic department free reign to transform a quarter of the campus into commercial enterprises having zero relevance to the institutional mission.

However, in reality, nearly all of these athletes would end up losing money. And, the NCAA manual was not created to squelch market forces. It was created to ensure competitive equity... playing games in college.

If all sport is about is “getting what’s mine,” why not allow high school athletes to be paid? They play on ESPN. LeBron James himself was so talented that ESPN broadcast his high school team. Why not pay little league baseball players? Is that what sport is about?

No matter what you may believe, there would be no more scholarships (you know, “getting paid”) if we went to an NCAA athlete free market. 99% of athletes wouldn’t get a dime.

I know the media hates facts when it comes to the poor, overworked athlete, but all that TV money goes back into supporting not only their own opulence, but also every sport not called football or basketball. Athletes would not have palace-dorms or eat steak every night or get free everything or be paid cash every month were it not for this TV money.

Who determines fair value compensation, by the way? Johnny Manziel played QB at Texas A&M. He was good. So, say an agent says he was worth one million and the then-sophomore college student should be paid accordingly. You don’t think his wide receivers would then STRIKE and hold out for equal salary? Then the offensive linemen would refuse to play unless they were equally compensated? Then, the QB from Alabama wants to be paid one million and one dollar because he thinks he’s better. So does the star volleyball player. And, the student body president. And, the grad students.

Then, college football screeches to a halt and we have a holdout. So, then, because weeks of games were lost, and universities lost collective BILLIONS in revenue, they can no longer pay the inflated “salaries,” so, they decide the only financial solutions is to drop giving athletics scholarships. No more 3rd string lineman getting over paid by receiving the same ridiculous benefits as the starting QB. He loses his scholarship all because the starting QB wanted to be PAID while receiving a free education and given the best of everything that any non athlete student would kill for.

So, then, to continue, Dr Pepper refuses to honor its financial commitment to the College Football Playoff and we have no major bowl games. All because a minuscule percentage of entitled kids demanding more money than they’re worth.

Sounds crazy? It already happens in this endeavor called PROFESSIONAL sports. Johnny Manziel and anybody else is totally free to go play pro if they don’t want to open a book.

This has been studied to death in sport management. Nearly every single D1 athlete would end up LOSING money if we were to go to a system of free enterprise, just because of a tiny percentage of talented athletes.

Playing sports for fun in college or in high school or in peewee is more about getting what you think you are worth.

Taylor replies:

A market would evolve to determine value for players in a complex sports industry that handles a host of employees up to multi-million-dollar coaches.  A player would have a right to ask for any sum, just like a grad student or a flute player in the band, but the college has the right to say no.

If you don’t understand that the NCAA manual serves to squelch market forces, I don’t think our conversation can be productive.

He allows the reader to get the last word:

Well, I worked as an Assistant Director of Athletics for NCAA Compliance and I studied in graduate school the historical context and relationship of the NCAA to higher ed, so, I’d like to think I know more than most. Nevertheless, if you cannot grasp college sports as extracurricular fun, well, you will continue your losing fight.

Big props to Taylor for his intellectual honesty to air tough dissents, something that seems increasingly rare these days. Previous reader debate here. Email your own take to