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.


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?

Oh, and do athletic departments and the NCAA get to keep their all-important federal tax-exempt status?

Scrapping amateurism deftly sidesteps all of the above. Athletes remain students. College sports organizations remain—ahem—non-profits. Powerbrokers like recently fired Fiesta Bowl CEO-cum-gentlemen's club inspector John Junkers can keep on keepin' on in the manner of their corporate boardroom and investment banking peers, receiving absurdly outsized compensation packages. The entertainment delivery system fans know and mostly love would remain intact.

The only difference? Athletes would be able to realize much more of their economic value.

If the college sports black market has taught us anything—beyond the fact that landing a future NBA player like O.J. Mayo (current pro salary: $4.5 million) for less than $200,000 and a flat-screen TV is a bargain—it's that the money is there for the taking. And the giving. Well-heeled boosters want to distribute sacks of cash. Fans can't wait to purchase autographed jerseys. Local car dealers like putting jocks in sweet rides. Why not make it nice and legal, the same way said arrangements would be for any other student?

Fact: No one bats an eyelash when a talented music student earns beer money playing weddings. Also fact: The National Panhellenic Conference does not launch a formal probe when a sorority sister receives an expensive piece of jewelry from her older, wealthier boyfriend. If someone wants to give Newton a cool hundred grand—or put him in a commercial for a regional cola distributor—let them. College sports won't spontaneously combust in an apocalyptic conflagration of unmarked Benjamins and Impalas with fancy rims.

If anything, our campus games will simply be more rational.

As a philosophical and historical construct, amateurism is dubious. And that's being kind. The Victorian-era English aristocrats who came up with the concept ascribed it to the ancient Greeks, who competed at their Olympic games for nothing more than honor, glory and olive wreaths. And also all kinds of goodies for victorious athletes, including prize money and senatorial seats in Athens. Romantic revisionist history aside, amateurism was a way for snooty upper class rowers to avoid trading strokes with unwashed farm-and-factory-working proles. Could anything be more antithetical to our notion of sport as a level, meritocratic playing field? To our notion of America as the same? Besides, if you're trying to prepare college students to compete in the cutthroat, profits uber alles, grab-what-you-can 21st century global economy, working-for-free is the last concept you want polluting young minds, a tragic waste of brainpower that otherwise could be devoted to learning something useful. Like Mandarin.

It's often said that the War on Drugs—like Prohibition before it—takes a preexisting drug problem and adds a crime problem. Amateurism creates a similar dilemma for college sports. Except there is no initial drug problem. There's nothing inherently wrong about people paying other people to perform—otherwise, we should outlaw American Idol. Allow money handshakes, and campus athletes will be free to participate in normal economic life, instead of pocketing illicit gains from an incoherent, morally bankrupt system and pretending otherwise. College sports will benefit by becoming (slightly) less hypocritical. The rest of society will benefit, too, because legal quid pro quo can be taxed, one money handshake and accompanying 1099 and/or 709 form at a time, with the NCAA's much-loathed enforcement division folded into the equally reviled IRS.

After all, in an era of massive state and federal shortfalls—where subsidy-starved universities are slashing their research and classroom budgets at the same time mega-profitable corporations such as GE earn billions in tax credits—don't we need all the additional public revenue we can get?