Time magazine features a story on paying college student athletes this week, again prompting NCAA decision-makers to examine what is fair to student athletes in exchange for the billions of dollars they generate for the NCAA and member schools. To date, student athletes are “paid” by earning partial and full-athletic scholarships, which on the surface seems fair when you take into account that in some cases the value of a four-year college scholarship can be between $100,000-200,000. But upon closer examination, there may be much more to this story.
The fundamental assumption when looking at college student athlete compensation is that student athletes value their free (or reduced cost) education. While it is true that some student athletes feel this way, many others do not, and as a result fail to invest in a sensible major and rarely decide to attend classes, either. In these cases the student athlete is playing college sports exclusively in an attempt to parlay the experience into a later, more lucrative professional sports career. The “free education,” therefore, could actually be viewed more as a burden than a benefit.
Think of it another way — if your current employer decided to not pay you in salary but instead with something you really don’t value or feel you can use (like bushels of bananas), how would you feel about it? Many student athletes today feel this way about the trade of a free education – if they had it their way they would choose to receive a check for $100,000 rather than vouchers to take classes toward majors they haven’t chosen nor been invested in (remember, many feel they’re going to the league and won’t need the education).
But be warned, before you jump on 18-22 year old college student athletes for not taking advantage of the free education they are “given” (trust me, they earn the money), you might want to look a little closer at the colleges offering the scholarships. In many cases student athletes with intense football/basketball schedules are encouraged to take easier majors (with low future job opportunities), and in some cases student athletes simply major in eligibility. While colleges will quickly point out all that is available to the scholarship student athlete, the reality is they are much more concerned with revenue-generating student athletes staying eligible than they are seeing them get into intense college majors that could steal their time away from practicing.
I have been saying for years that the Apocalypse could happen if college student athletes ever decide to unionize. The reality is they are the product, and the ones exclusively responsible for the billions of dollars the NCAA and colleges receive each year. Can you imagine if college football players ever went on strike? Just think of the leverage they would have, especially when colleges are on the hook for all the bills associated with college athletic training facilities, not to mention astonishingly expensive college coach contracts.
It’s easy to see why the NCAA hides behind the “free education” exchange rather than actually paying student athletes who would prefer the loot over the books. Rather than talking ideal, perhaps it’s time to talk real, which is probably why Time magazine felt it was important to jump into this debate (and favor the idea of student athletes being paid).