Evaluating Both Sides of the Pay-for-Play Debate (Part 1)

April 25th, 2017 | by Dan Matheson
Evaluating Both Sides of the Pay-for-Play Debate (Part 1)


I was fascinated this week by the release of notes from interviews conducted with two university presidents, two college athletics directors, and one former athletics director as part of an ongoing lawsuit over NCAA rules limiting what schools can provide student-athletes.  Some of the administrators’ opinions in the notes struck me as being rather unconvincing in the ongoing debate (and litigation) over whether schools should be allowed to pay student-athletes.  So I decided to consider the merits of several standard arguments on both sides of the pay-for-play issue.  Which side has the most convincing arguments based on supporting evidence?  Are the NCAA, schools, and conferences relying too heavily on tradition-based arguments and gut feelings about what would happen under a pay-for-play system?  This first installment in a two-part series focuses on four arguments that college athletics officials frequently make when opposing pay-for-play proposals.  In the second part, I will look at the other side’s position.

Argument #1:  Student, alumni, donor, and fan interest in college sports will decline if athletes receive more than a scholarship and cost-of-attendance stipend.

This argument has been made in various forms by many college officials, including NCAA president Mark Emmert, Indiana University athletics director Fred Glass, and University of Texas president Greg Fenves.  In my opinion, there is little evidence to support this assertion.  Revenues, which are arguably the most meaningful measurement of public interest for athletics departments, have increased dramatically at the same time as college football and men’s basketball have become more professionalized.  According to a Washington Post study of athletics departments at 48 public universities in the wealthiest (most professionalized) NCAA conferences, combined revenues nearly doubled between 2004-2014 from $2.67 billion to $4.49 billion, and median department earnings among the group jumped from $52.9 million to $93.1 million.  As revenues have steadily risen, so have coaching salaries.  In the majority of states, a head football or men’s basketball coach is the highest-paid state employee.  It has also become more common for athletics directors and assistant coaches to receive more than $1 million annually.

Other ways in which the college game appears to the public to have become more professionalized in recent years:  lavish athletics facilities with amenities such as laser tag, bowling lanes, movie theaters, and waterfalls, and “one-and-done” basketball players spending less than two full semesters attending school before heading to the NBA.  The University of Kentucky regularly has multiple players leave early for the NBA draft (three freshmen this year), and it has not hurt the team’s following despite the fact that fans know many of their favorite players each year use their time at Kentucky as a brief audition for the NBA.

At a recent panel discussion on his campus, Fred Glass, the Indiana athletics director, said, “I think if we move toward true pay for play, if we give students money over and above that which reimburses them for their costs, then you kill the goose that’s laying the golden eggs. You take away the special sauce out of sports…I think you lose the magic of sports.”  If the combination of coaching and administration salaries that are totally out of line with higher education, facilities that surpass those of many pro teams, and the game’s biggest stars treating the NCAA like a minor league has not tarnished the magic of college sports, there is no reason to believe additional compensation to the players would turn off fans.

Argument #2:  Only about two dozen schools generate enough athletics revenue annually to cover expenses.  Player salaries will put athletics departments in a deeper hole and lead to the elimination of teams.

This argument is almost always brought up by those opposed to a pay-for-play system for college athletes, and depending on how a pay-for-play system would end up being structured, I am confident many schools would cut teams.  Expenses exceed revenues in most athletics departments, so expect schools under a pay-for-play system to direct scarce resources toward football and men’s basketball because those sports generate the majority of revenue for almost every athletics department.  This has already happened on many campuses even without pay for play.  For example, James Madison University eliminated 10 sports in 2006, and five years later the school completed a $62 million football stadium renovation.  Expect many more examples of similar decisions by other athletics departments if they begin competing for athletes with salaries on top of scholarships.

Argument #3:  Student-athletes receive enough already.

Student-athletes are well compensated, but plaintiffs suing the NCAA and member schools for violating antitrust laws believe that the question of whether that compensation is enough should be determined by the marketplace, not limits imposed by NCAA rules.  Full tuition, housing, books, meals and snacks, plus a cost-of-attendance stipend, can easily exceed $40,000 for a nine-month academic year at a state school and $70,000 at a private school.  The value of other student-athlete benefits, such as coaching, travel, equipment, sports medicine services, insurance, tutoring, miscellaneous clothing, and other items and services, can add thousands more.  Overall, NCAA schools provide financial aid of more than $2.9 billion to more than 150,000 students annually.  There is no denying that full-scholarship student-athletes are the “One Percenters” among the student body on college campuses.

The debate over whether student-athletes receive enough has become more contentious as athletics department revenues and employee salaries have risen sharply in recent years (see Argument #1 above).  In response, schools changed the NCAA rules to allow cost-of-attendance stipends and unlimited food for athletes, but those efforts were perhaps too little, too late to hold off the growing demand for more student-athlete compensation.

Personally, I believe student-athletes receive a tremendous amount of value under a full scholarship, and I would prefer to see a system where departments fund as many teams and scholarship opportunities as possible.  This seems most feasible under a system where student-athlete compensation does not include salaries, but I also understand why it is becoming more difficult for the opposition to accept that student-athletes should not be paid as more coaches and college sports officials become extraordinarily wealthy managing something that many still argue is an extracurricular activity in a higher education experience.  

Argument #4:  If athletes received salaries, it would shift the focus of college athletics away from its core mission of academics and degree attainment.

The NCAA position is that salaries for participation in athletics would threaten the principle of amateurism, and as the NCAA website states, “Maintaining amateurism is crucial to preserving an academic environment in which acquiring a quality education is the first priority. In the collegiate model of sports, the young men and women competing on the field or court are students first, athletes second. The NCAA membership has adopted amateurism rules to ensure the students’ priority remains on obtaining a quality educational experience and that all of student-athletes are competing equitably.”

I do not buy the argument that colleges must avoid paying athletes anything beyond the cost of attendance to maintain education as a top priority.  NCAA rules require maintenance of minimum individual and team academic standards for eligibility and restrict the total number of hours per week that coaches can require athletes to spend on team responsibilities.  Adding payments to the equation does not require elimination of those NCAA academic and time-demand rules.  Additional compensation would provide even more incentive for student-athletes to stay eligible, and it could incentivize some athletes to stay in school longer before turning pro.

No one ever expresses concern about the educational priorities of the thousands of non-athlete students on campuses who work as university employees.  In fact, the University of Iowa financial aid office suggests that students who work 20 hours or less per week do better in school than their non-working peers.  Non-athlete student employees on many campuses are eligible for workers’ compensation insurance benefits.  Graduate students at the University of Iowa are represented by a labor union, and those with 20-hour-per-week appointments receive full tuition plus stipends of more than $18,000 in an academic year.  Non-athlete students receive paychecks and other employee benefits, and they manage to stay focused on attaining a quality education.  The argument that student-athletes would lose focus on education if they received paychecks is unconvincing and as much of an unfair generalization as that made by people who believe that occasional high-profile academic scandals and a handful of one-and-done basketball players prove that athletes are not legitimate students, which I recently wrote about.

Concerning the importance of amateurism for maintaining equitable competition, (as mentioned above in the quote from the NCAA website) amateurism is whatever NCAA schools and conferences define it to be, and the current amateurism rules allow for inequitable competition without pay for play.  NCAA rules allowed several student-athletes at the 2016 summer Olympics to earn six figure awards and still return to compete in NCAA sports during the 2016-17 academic year.  Inequities existed this year when Kyle Snyder, an Olympic gold medalist wrestler who reportedly earned $250,000 for his Olympic success, competed against NCAA amateurs, many of whom would not have even had a full scholarship in the underfunded sport of wrestling.  In fact, there are inequities whenever a full scholarship student-athlete competes against a non-scholarship student-athlete.  The argument that amateurism ensures equitable competition is as unconvincing as the argument that it preserves the integrity of the academic mission of college athletics.

In the second of this two-part series, I will evaluate arguments that proponents of pay-for-play models frequently make to support their position.


Dan Matheson About Dan Matheson
Dan Matheson, J.D., is director of the University of Iowa Sport & Recreation Management program. Prior to joining the Iowa faculty, Matheson was an associate director of enforcement for the NCAA and the baseball operations director for the New York Yankees. He currently serves on Iowa’s Presidential Committee on Athletics and is a dynamic keynote speaker and panelist who has received multiple teaching honors at Iowa. https://danmatheson.wixsite.com/sportbusiness

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