Paying NCAA Student-Athletes: A Simple Answer Amidst Complicated Rules

          The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) helps student-athletes across America compete in sports while earning four-year college degrees.  It unifies more than 450,000 young men and women whom are dispersed throughout more than 1,200 institutions, divided into 3 different divisions.[1]  Through the use of athletic scholarships, academic standards, drug testing, and many other components, the NCAA keeps a level playing field for competition.  When rules are broken, penalties are incurred.  When titles are won, rewards are received.  Since its formation in 1910, the NCAA has been an important and respected association across the country.  The one component of the NCAA that needs to be changed, however, is paying its student-athletes.  I will argue why they deserve to be paid, how to go about paying them, and the ethical philosophies that support it.

     Each year, a 68-team NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament begins in mid-March and culminates with the Final Four in one of the country’s biggest cities, leaving heartbreak and Cinderella stories at each of its smaller, regional sites along the way.  I was fortunate to experience the madness of this year’s Final Four in Atlanta firsthand, and if there’s one thing I learned from my experience, it’s that the NCAA makes a lot of money.  The ticket I received for the games was in Section 349 (as you can see below, in orange) of the Georgia Dome, and its face value was $95.  One of the people with me sold his unused ticket after the first game for $100.  Walking away, a man in a Michigan jacket sighed as he said, “I would have given you $200 for that!” A few hundred steps later, we both sold our ticket stubs for $20.  But the money doesn’t stop at ticket sales.  Two years ago, the NCAA agreed to a 13-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS/Turner Sports for coverage of the NCAA Tournament.[2]  March Madness lives up to its name.

My view

My view


^ I was right here

     So, where does all this money go?  Administrators, staff, event coordinators and the like all get paid.  Perhaps the biggest sources of payment, however, are the coaches.  University of Louisville’s Head Coach Rick Pitino’s bonus for winning the National Championship is $425,000; that’s roughly 70 percent of what Louisville’s university President James Ramsey is getting this year.[3]  Not to mention Pitino’s measly base salary of $5.7 million on top of that bonus.  Mark Yost, author of Var$ity Green, a behind the scenes look at culture and corruption in college athletics, further describes the massive amounts of money some college coaches are earning.  “Duke’s Coach K has a fifteen-year, $6 million sponsorship contract with Nike, (74)” he writes.  These types of deals aren’t uncommon in the big-time coaching world, either.  On average, only about 25 percent of their full compensation comes in the form of a salary.  “The rest comes from television and apparel contracts, endorsements, and other side deals,” says Yost. (115)

     How can one justify paying these coaches such large amounts of money and not the players?  The one place the money does not go, after all, is to the student-athletes that played a large part in creating it.  The easy explanation as to why this doesn’t happen would be because it’s not fair.  As ESPN writer and TV personality Michael Wilbon describes, “because so many athletic departments run at a deficit, it’s difficult to make the case that schools should pay regular salaries to athletes.”  With that being said, Wilbon doesn’t believe in paying college athletes evenly.  “I’m interested in seeing the people who produce the revenue share a teeny, tiny slice of it,” he says.  In most cases, this would include players on men’s basketball and football teams.  However, if other teams such as UCONN women’s basketball or Bucknell lacrosse are profitable, they deserve to be paid.  The teams that aren’t profitable don’t.  “You know what that’s called?” Wilbon asks.  “Capitalism.  Not everything is equal, not everything is fair.”

     Yost describes in his book, “The whole operation…[is] designed to hide the real business that the NCAA and their participating schools are engaged in: extortion” (159-160).  The simple truth is that these student-athletes provide their minds and bodies for the generation of billions of dollars.  “According to the most recent studies,” Yost points out, “the MRP (Marginal Revenue Product) of a draft-quality player ranges from about $263,000 for women’s basketball to $495,000 for college football and $1.4 million for men’s college basketball” (166).  Basically, that’s how much money a school makes off of these young men and women.  And they don’t get paid anything in return.

     Non-athlete college students aren’t restricted from earning money by an organization like the NCAA.  “If a music student goes out in the summer and earns 50 grand, who objects?” Wilbon asks.  “The student-musician is no less a college student because he struck a lucrative deal.”  As long as these deals are done with proper morals and intentions – which I will discuss later – what separates them?  Both required hard work and deserved to be rewarded.  However, the NCAA strictly prohibits student-athletes from being paid.  Below is an excerpt from its Summary of Regulations for Division I:

You are not eligible for participation in a sport if you have ever:

(1)       Taken pay, or the promise of pay, for competing in that sport.

            [Bylaw 12.1.2]

(4)    Used your athletics skill for pay in any form in that sport.

            [Bylaws 12.1.2 and]

These rules need to be changed; here is how it can be done.

     Roughly two years ago, the NCAA and its new president, Mark Emmert, agreed on a new rule which allowed Division I schools to pay their student-athletes $2,000 stipends.  The purpose of these stipends were to increase the value of the scholarships, which some studies estimate falls on average about $3,500 short of the full cost of attending college annually.[4]  Essentially, the stipend was a form of payment to the players, but Emmert viewed it differently.  “If we move toward a pay-for-play model — if we were to convert our student athletes to employees of the university — that would be the death of college athletics,” he said.  Below I will propose how to make paying NCAA student-athletes work, hopefully without killing college athletics.

NCAA President Mark Emmert

     Firstly, the NCAA will have to stand firm when schools with little to no money complain that they can’t pay their players.  Those newly approved $2,000 stipends lasted less than a month back in late 2011, when more than 125 college athletic directors protested because they simply couldn’t afford them.  Weeks later, the NCAA decided to suspend the stipends all together, which only made the matter worse because some high school players had already signed papers to receive the money.  As Michael Wilbon mentioned earlier, the process won’t be fair for everyone.

     Secondly, players must be allowed to sell whatever they have earned while playing.  The NCAA currently forbids this type of action, and several cases of players selling jerseys in exchange for tattoos, for example, have resulted in multi-game suspensions.  Not only have they rightfully earned the right to sell these things that were given to them, but the selling process will also be a learning experience.  “If somebody is willing to give A.J. Green $750 or $1,000 or even $2,500 for his Georgia Bulldogs jersey, fine, good,” Wilbon argues.  “If one of his teammates, a tackle, can fetch only $50 for his jersey, then it’ll be a good marketing lesson for both of them.”

     Finally, players must only be paid for the work they put in at their respective sport.  Paying student-athletes money to sit around and skip practice is wrong.  In fact, once schools begin to pay players, I believe they will hold them to a higher standard than ever before.  Emmert, the President of the NCAA, argues that paying student-athletes will corrupt college sports.  “Why would you even want them to be students?” he asks.  “Why would you care about their graduation rates?”  I compare the situation to an NBA team that fines one of its players for missing practice.  Although the player missing that practice may hurt the team in the long run, a $25,000 fine means a less expense on that player’s salary in the short run.  Basically what I’m trying to say is that the NBA team would waste no time fining the player.  I believe that as a result, schools will hold their student-athletes to even higher standards because they are essentially taking money from the school.

     There are obviously many other components that would need to be added to my simplistic plan to make it work.  I do think, though, that through these three main components, a framework could begin to develop.  There would be nothing wrong with a high school recruit basing his/her college decision on which school paid them the most money.  It’s no different than basing your decision on which school has the nicer arena or business school.

     From a popular ethical philosopher’s point of view, paying revenue-generating student-athletes would be right and just because it means they did something worth being paid.  Robert Nozick, author of Anarchy, State and Utopia, conveniently uses Wilt Chamberlain as an example to explain his theory.  He describes a scenario in which, due to a clause in Chamberlain’s contract, fans that attend his games each drop a quarter in a jar on top of the normal cost of admission.  These fans enjoy watching his games and are happy to pay.  Nozick then asks, if Chamberlain receives $250,000 from one million fans putting a quarter into his jar over the course of the season, is this distribution just?  “Each of these persons chose to give the twenty-five cents of their money to Chamberlain,” he states (207). It’s no different for college student-athletes: if people pay to watch them play, they deserve some of the money.

Wilt the Stilt saying, “GIVE ME YOUR QUARTERS!” And also, “I just scored 100 points.”

     At a more organizational level, Peter French, author of Ethics and College Sports, utilizes the viewpoints of several different ethical theorists to assess the meaning of “amateurism” according to the NCAA.  For instance, citing authors Robert Butcher and Angela Schneider of Doping in Sport: Global Ethical Issues, “amateurism should be thought of as a motivation and not in terms of the absence or presence of monetary element” (22).  In other words, you can still be an amateur and get paid for what you do – contrary to what the NCAA states.  This is where the philosophy gets difficult, though, because now we are analyzing the motivation that these people have within themselves.  French agrees that these matters are complicated.  “How is a coach or an athletic director or the NCAA or anyone to determine with any degree of certitude that any particular college athletes is motivated to participate in a sport for the love of the game rather than for the external goods that participation may offer him or her?” (23)

     The complicated questions that not only French asks, but also countless others involved in the NCAA, don’t need complicated answers.  I’m not arguing on behalf of student-athletes that have stolen equipment from the locker room to sell, nor am I for the ones that excel in their sport but don’t go to class.  I’m arguing for the student-athletes that work hard in the classroom and at their sport to generate revenue for their school.  The NCAA doesn’t need any more complicated rules on top of what it already has.  The answer is simple: pay them.  They deserve it.

[1] “NCAA student-athlete participation hits 450,000”

[2] Michael Wilbon, ESPN. “College athletes deserve to be paid”

[3] Curtis Eichelberger, Bloomberg News.

[4] Joe Nocera, The New York Times. “Let’s Start Paying College Athletes”

Additional Works Cited

French, Peter.   Ethics and College Sports.  Roman and Littlefield, 2004.

Nozick, Robert.  Anarchy, State and Utopia.  Basic Books, 1974.

Summary of NCAA Regulations – NCAA Division I


Yost, Mark.  Var$ity Green.  Stanford University Press, 2010.