Unpaid Players Producing Profits: College Football’s Greatest Folly

College football players should be paid for their services. Many athletes receive scholarships do not cover true living costs, such as utilities or incidentals. Combined with lengthy, daily practice sessions, these extra costs are a huge burden for many players. At big universities, football programs generate millions in revenues. These players are simply not compensated adequately by their institutions. The free market should dictate a player’s value, up to a cap, rather than arbitrarily infringing on their right to make a living. This type of laissez-faire policy is applied to coaches and should also reward talented and performing players.

Big-time college football players at big-time universities earn big-time scholarships, typically covering the majority of attendance costs (Source 1). While this figure may seem sufficient, many other expenses arise throughout the course of the year. Utility costs and incidentals – flat tires, car repairs, etc. – are not affordable under the current system. In addition, scholarships only cover rent costs for ten months of the year. In July and August, financial aid is not provided to students unless they are enrolled in summer school. However, with strict practice schedules, students do not have time to take such courses. In this situation, students have bills not covered by financial aid, yet they can’t work because of a busy athletic schedule. To put it simply – being a college athlete is a job. These athletes should be paid. Situations such as these have led to NCAA infractions, where players accept money or gifts from boosters or even college administrators. Compensating players, even minimally, would reduce the likelihood of students breaking these rules.

I propose a system allowing the compensation of Division 1 college football players, equal to the cash value of the scholarship or the university’s minimum in-state tuition rate – whichever is greater. For instance, if a student-athlete receives a four-year scholarship with a total value of $80,000, he should be able to be paid up to $80,000 over the course of the four years, paid in equal installments of $1666 per month ($80,000 divided by 48 months). All students should be eligible for a minimum of 50% of the value or the scholarship. This income minimum would compensate partial-scholarship athletes, as well students at institutions with very low tuition costs. However, colleges should not be required to pay these players anything more than the minimum. The free market should dictate whether these students are paid maximum value. Highly-touted campus superstars should inherently earn higher monies than proven backups. The NCAA should also implement a system of incentive-based bonuses, where students with low prospects can attain additional income (not to exceed a maximum of 20% over scholarship value) for reaching specific statistical thresholds or achievements. For example, any quarterback who completes over 70% of his passes should be eligible for bonuses for his success. These bonuses must be regulated and determined by the NCAA to prevent the exacerbation of loopholes. This incentive system would also increase player work ethic and encourage maximum effort, especially at smaller colleges.

Opponents of paying athletes suggest that there is an inherent problem with paying amateurs to play sports. First of all throwing around the term “amateur” is naïve. People who think college football players are amateurs probably also echo that “it isn’t about winning” either. College football players, while perhaps naïve themselves, work hard to hopefully become professionals. While most of them will end up pursuing other passions, these players deserve more compensation for the revenues generated by these programs. The fact that these players aren’t talented enough to become professionals shouldn’t tarnish the results they produce while in college. Make no mistake about it: these programs generate millions in revenues. College football programs of today are not the like those of times past. Notre Dame signed exclusive television contrasts to broadcast games. In 2008, ESPN purchased TV rights for Southeastern Conference (SEC) game coverage for 15 years at a price tag of $2.25 billion. CBS also signed a contract with the SEC for 825 million over the same time frame (SI). Due to revenue sharing of TV contracts, each school now earns 17 million/year from these contracts alone (Forbes). Include revenue generated from ticket and apparel sales and even concessions, and it becomes increasingly clear that college football is no longer simply a game: it’s a bona-fide business. Keep in mind that these institutions receive this money whether they win or lose.

Let’s take another look at the figures mentioned above. NCAA rules dictate that colleges may award a maximum of 85 full scholarships to football players (NCAA.org). As mentioned earlier, while full scholarships typically cover tuition costs, there are many other costs of living not accounted for. The difference between what a college scholarship pays and expenditures is known as shortfall. As the National College Players Association points out, “The average amount an athlete on “full scholarship” would be required to pay out of pocket amounted to $2,763 per year”. (NCPA) Multiply this per-year figure of $2763 times 85 scholarships and we reach at total of $284,355 for all players. Again, SEC teams each receive 17 million/year from television contracts alone. Obviously, colleges can afford to cover a football player’s shortfall and even more. While SEC teams might seem to be an exception to the rule, the Big Ten generated $66 million in revenue in 2008 to distribute among its (at the time) 11 teams. It is important to remember that these revenues are strictly generated from television contracts and do not include the money from the myriad of the college’s other sources.

Why shouldn’t the best college football players be awarded the most money? The market dictates the salaries of coaches. If these are “amateur” athletes, why do universities spend millions on coaches? Every year, high-commodity coaches sign million dollar deals with universities. For example, in 2010, Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban earned 5.16 million. Even the lowest paid coach on the list, Steve Roberts of Arkansas State earned a moderate salary of only $140,000 (USA Today). Obviously, athletic directors see a value in hiring skilled coaches, because winning games equal big profits. So the question becomes, if college football coaches earn such big incomes, why are players expected to play simply for the “love of the game”? It seems only fair that these players be compensated as well, since they make the plays that win (or lose) the games. In addition, the lifestyle associated with high-profile athletics is very hard to maintain on the limited funds players currently have access to.

Opponents of paying these players also contend that college is an environment that should be focused on learning. Perhaps paying athletes would introduce them to the concept of savings and investment, so players who do make it pro learn to manage money instead of squandering it on jewelry and cars. The same people who argue that players shouldn’t be paid, also argue that professional athletes who squander big paychecks are idiots. Perhaps paying these athletes while in college provides an opportunity to teach athletes how to save and budget. This instruction would surely also benefit the majority of students:  the 92% that “go pro in something other than sports”.

Overall, paying college football players is a must. If universities can justify paying coaches hundreds of thousands of dollars, then players deserve more than what scholarships have to offer. While college is clearly about learning, university athletes are in training just as much as attorneys or doctors. Other students are not restricted in the manner in which they support themselves, so why are college football players put on a pedestal where they can’t work, yet can’t be paid. Without these athletes, there would be no college sports, and consequently, no TV deals nor millionaire coaches or athletic directors. Let’s do the right thing: compensate college football players for their efforts.

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One thought on “Unpaid Players Producing Profits: College Football’s Greatest Folly

  1. Before we get the an overall assessment, please note that a transition is needed before the following claim. You may even want to develop it into its own paragraph:”Situations such as these have led to NCAA infractions, where players accept money or gifts from boosters or even college administrators. Compensating players, even minimally, would reduce the likelihood of students breaking these rules.”

    Overall, your essay is well-researched and I think that you are going in the right direction by qualifying that your argument only applies to the top-tier athletic programs. But don’t give your readers that impression that you are only focusing on these programs because your argument would be more difficult to prove when applied to smaller, less profitable programs. Your readers may see you as hiding an inconvenient truth. Describe exactly how the top-tier programs are set apart form smaller ones. It can’t only be that they make money for their universities. It think you best bet is to argue that top-tier athletes are more like quasi-professionals is not flat-out semi-professionals. How is this different for athletes in smaller programs?

    I addressing your opposition, try to find individuals or groups that have a stated point of view you can challenge. Instead of saying “some critics claim that…” give your readers actual critics. Tell us what they say and then explain why their points of view are misguided or wrong. You need to have an identifiable opposition. Quote from these individuals or groups and challenge their assertions. That way, you have an exact/specific human opposition and not something akin to an ever-present boogeyman or Chicken Little opposition.

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