POINT/COUNTERPOINT: Let college sports go pro

Question: Should college athletes be paid?

Published On:
Monday, January 25, 2010
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Being a college athlete is a job. The hours are long. When you add in training, travel, practice and games, the workload is well over 40 hours a week.

Most jobs don’t leave you nursing nagging injuries all the time, or bring you home after a weekend on the road crammed in hotel rooms smelling your teammates and their gear.

At bigger schools, in the marquee, revenue-producing sports (mainly basketball and football), the experience is different, but it’s a difference of degree, not of kind. The food is better, and so are the accommodations, but the accompanying pressure is ratcheted up tremendously.

Sure, college athletes get “paid” for these efforts through scholarships, but that pay pales in light of the millions that some big-time athletic departments bring in by capitalizing on their skill.

For the athletes in marquee sports, it has to rankle that athletic departments use their names and likenesses to make large amounts of money when they can’t even sell an autograph, or a book, or accept a paid lunch from a well-meaning coach or booster. It’s a well-known fact that athletic scholarships, while valuable, do not cover all the costs of the typical athlete’s life while in college.

The college sports system as currently constituted separates valuable labor from financial reward, and imposes draconian punishments on athletes who transgress byzantine rules that increasingly only exist to codify a bygone ideal of amateurism.

It also makes underhandedness an advantage; witness USC’s recent legal troubles surrounding recruitment and payment violations.

This is not, as many claim, fundamentally an issue of fairness. There is nothing inherently unfair in not paying athletes.

Colleges shouldn’t be forced to pay athletes. But they should be allowed to pay athletes.

Imagine a system where, at the beginning of every season, colleges would declare themselves as “professional” or “amateur” basketball and football programs. Professional programs would compete against each other, while the larger number of schools that chose to remain amateur would treat their athletes like any other student.

That means no athletic scholarships in the amateur leagues. The Patriot League, a small Northeastern conference that does not give athletic scholarships, is an example of what these schools would look like. For the many athletic programs that lose money every year, imagine what a boon it would be if scholarships were no longer required to stay competitive.

For professional colleges, the system would operate freely and openly. Colleges would recruit players, not with under-the-table offers and wink-and-nod promises, but with public contract offers. Competitive bidding on players would allow young athletes to achieve some financial stability from their peak athletic years, when their skills are valuable, even if they’ll never go pro.

Universities already face similar choices. This system would simply force those choices into the open, allowing college sports to operate free of the many fictions that have surrounded them.

Future pro athletes would not have to pretend that they are in school for the education. Smaller schools would not have to pretend that they can compete on the same level as the massive state schools. Large athletic factories would not have to pretend that their highest purpose is educating student-athletes, not making money.

And maybe the life of a college athlete would get a little bit better.

Reach Will with ideas at wmunsil@asu.edu