Pay college football players: yea or nay?

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Universities across the country take advantage of their student athletes
  • Universities across the country take advantage of their student athletes.
Although I'd consider myself a casual fan of all other sports, I wholeheartedly admit to having a (somewhat unhealthy) obsession with college football. Growing up in Oregon, as I did, required two things: that you spend at least three weeks out of the year hiking, and that you pick a team—either the University of Oregon Ducks or the Oregon State University Beavers.

I'm a Duck. And save for a few curious offshoots, so is the rest of my family, which means that for as long as I can remember, college football has been an integral part of my life. I resisted it for a while—most of my high school years were spent wearing dark clothing and vehemently claiming to not give a flying fuck about sports—but I eventually grew to love it. (I've even managed to convert a few friends into joining my hysteria).

As much as I love the game, however, I'm not blind to some of its more egregious behind-the-scenes aspects—specifically, the exorbitant amount of cash raked in by the coaches, university presidents, athletic directors, advertisers, and broadcast entities (especially when compared to how much the students make, which is nothing).

College football is the most profitable extracurricular activity in history, and it's a major problem.

Let's put this in perspective a bit. In a New York Times article dated December 30, 2011, Joe Nocera crunched some numbers and found that combined salaries of the 15 highest-paid college football head coaches was $53.4 million. When you account for the combined salaries of the 109 other head coaches in Division I FBS football, that number creeps toward the $100 million mark.

But it doesn't stop there. As Nocera learned,

College football and men’s basketball have become such huge commercial enterprises that together they generate more than $6 billion in annual revenue . . . Powerful conferences like the SEC and the Pac 12 have signed lucrative TV deals*, while the Big 10 and the University of Texas have created their own sports networks. Companies like Coors and Chick-fil-A eagerly toss millions in marketing dollars at college sports. Last year, Turner Broadcasting and CBS signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal for the television rights to the NCAA’s men’s basketball national championship tournament (a k a “March Madness”).

Meanwhile, the players—the people who actually put forth the physical labor and provide the entertainment that apparently necessitates entire television networks—see nothing, or at least not immediately. The justification for not paying players: their free college educations. Many coaches and university administrators have, unsurprisingly, taken this stance—including truth denier and all-around nimrod Jay Paterno—although some, including the University of Texas's Mack Brown, who happens to be the highest-paid coach in all of college football, think that some sort of payment should come the player's way.

As much as it pains me to agree with someone like Paterno, I share his opinion. The benefits bestowed upon college athletes are staggering. Considering how pitifully few people in this country have the privilege of attending college (debt-free or otherwise), a free college education is an invaluable gift. By merely attending classes, your average college athlete will experience a wealth of opportunities that extend beyond the already lucrative possibility of playing professional sports.

So, no—college athletes shouldn't be paid. But they should be treated better. Not only are college athletes denied compensation, but should they take advantage of their status as celebrity figures to gain extra financial benefits—like last year, when some players for Ohio State University exchanged their game jerseys and other memorabilia for cash and tattoos—they risk losing their scholarship. It doesn't take an economic theorist to recognize that the treatment of college athletes by the NCAA borders on exploitation—if not indentured servitude.

I won't claim to have a perfect way to solve this mess, but I reckon the solution starts at the top. Mack Brown shouldn't make triple figures; the NCAA shouldn't pocket advertising revenue. A sizable chunk of the money they make can and should be reallocated to provide a general stipend to student athletes, one that not only covers their cost of living but also provides reasonable compensation for what amounts to a full-time job. Will it ever happen? Probably not. (A prolific free market and a cultural aversion to anything that resembles "socialism" will see to that.) But without some sort of drastic overhaul, the integrity of college athletics will only sink further, as will my respect for a game I admire.

*In the time since this article was published, the Pac-12 conference has also created its own multimillion-dollar television network.

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