Should college athletes be paid for their contributions?

Basketball fans from across the country have their tickets scanned and file into Little Caesars Arena, eager for the chance to watch top college teams duke it out in the NCAA Tournament. Stadium vendors advertise $30 March Madness hats, $40 March Madness T-shirts, and other trademarked memorabilia sold by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Courtside, a Turner Sports television crew readies their cameras for the games ahead, giving the millions of at-home spectators an inside look at the players putting on the show.

01 ben sidebar student-athleteIn 2010, the NCAA, Columbia Broadcasting System, and Turner Sports agreed on a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal that gave CBS and Turner rights to broadcast the NCAA Tournament through 2024. Following the 2015-16 basketball season, the two entities inked an extension of the lucrative contract through 2032. The deal is mutualistic in nature; according to fortune.com, the NCAA receives an average of $1.10 billion under the new contract, while CBS and Turner saw more than 20 million viewers tune in to games and collected upwards of $1.13 billion from advertisements during the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Furthermore, merchandise and ticket sales also contribute millions of dollars to the revenue that the NCAA brings in over the course of March Madness each year.

The NCAA incorporates much of its earnings from the NCAA Tournament back into the programs it resides over. According to ncaa.org, revenue goes towards funding of scholarships, championship events in sports of less prominence, and Division 2 allocation, among other categories.

Similarly, college football generates a substantial amount of money, though the revenue stemming from the Division 1 College Football Playoff and bowl games do not flow back to the NCAA. By the end of the 2025 season, ESPN will have paid the Football Bowl Subdivision a total of $7.3 billion over 12 years. This money is distributed amongst the 10 FBS conferences. In return, ESPN gets rights to telecast seven games per year: four of the major bowl games, the two semifinal games, and the national championship game, according to businessinsider.com.

In addition to the sizable amounts of money from TV deals, schools earn millions more from boosters and the customers that spend on tickets, apparel, and more. For example, the University of Michigan athletic department brought in $152.5 million dollars in 2015, according to businessinsider.com. Michigan State University also reached the nine-figure mark in revenue, raking in $108.7 million from sports.

Billions of dollars are in the mix, and the wealth is spread from NCAA headquarters down to the offices of small Division 3 schools. However, the athletes at center stage are not amongst those compensated for their involvement with the NCAA or FBS. Per NCAA rules, collegiate athletes receive no cut of the profits, and there are harsh penalties in place for programs and players who do not abide.

Brian Bowen, a former Saginaw Arthur Hill High School basketball player, found this out first-hand. After committing to play for the University of Louisville in 2017, it was alleged that Bowen’s family had received $100,000 at the request of a UL coach. Bowen denies knowledge of the transaction.

In recent months, this rule prohibiting athletes from being paid has been called into question because of a large-scale scandal in the world of mens college basketball. Star players and premier programs have been identified in an FBI investigation concerning sports agents and boosters giving money to the families of college athletes, an obvious breach of NCAA rules. Among those listed in the FBI report was Miles Bridges, a current MSU standout whose mother allegedly accepted $470 from sports agent Christopher Dawkins.

With the buzz of the scandal growing exponentially, so too did the consideration of a question: should college athletes be paid?

Northwood University athletic director Dave Marsh is opposed to the idea of paying collegiate athletes for their contributions, citing the opportunity to further education with reduced or no costs.

“I think there’s great value in getting a scholarship for it,” Marsh said. “Even at the Division 1 level, you get your education paid for and you get to play the sport you love. I mean, how great is that? There’s a ton of benefit from that. Yes, the university can make some money, but that money also goes to help fund the other sports on campus and build things like that.”

For Central Michigan University, academics is also the priority in the eyes of the athletic department. Jim Knight, an assistant athletic director at CMU, explains that while at the university, athletes are encouraged to look past their careers in sports and consider the bigger picture.

At CMU Athletics, we are a proponent of putting student-athletes first,” Knight said in an email interview. “Our 450 student athletes have a cumulative grade-point average of 3.20, and they are spread across 66 majors at CMU. They are true student-athletes in that few will go on to play professionally. Most learn leadership skills here, have an opportunity to compete for Mid-American Conference championships and graduate with a degree. They go on to be successful in a variety of different fields and often are among the university’s most loyal and engaged alumni.

Marsh can see why some people are proponents of paying student-athletes. However, he maintains that with so many athletes under the NCAA’s jurisdiction, it’d be nigh impossible to allocate payment in a way that didn’t bring college athletics to its knees.

“I do understand when there’s limits on employment and that sort of thing, it could be difficult to not have money in your pocket to do some things,” Marsh said. “That being said, you’re talking about thousands [of student-athletes]. I just don’t think it’s realistic for the vast majority of students.”

In the event that student-athletes began getting a salary for their contributions, there is still plenty of debate as to how the money will be distributed. There are two main streams of thought: pay every student athlete the same amount, or base the earnings upon the revenue that a sport brings in.

According to the University of Michigan athletic department, there are 31 varsity sports offered at the university. Of those 31, only mens basketball and football return a profit. The remaining 29 sports run at a deficit. It would be illogical to reward an athlete from a deficit program just as much money as a star player in a sport creating substantial profit for the school.

“From a Title IX standpoint, I would think you need to have equity to do that,” Marsh said. “If you’re going to pay your football players, you should also pay your field hockey players.”

Marsh stresses that while top universities may be able to afford to pay all their athletes, the lion’s share of schools would not be able to do so.

“You have your handful of Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, whatever that could do that, but I think with the vast majority – Central Michigan, Division 2 schools, anything like that – from a budget standpoint it would be crippling,” Marsh said.

In the upcoming fall, senior Jacob Krzciok will swim for Division 1 school Miami University on a partial scholarship. Although he believes that student-athletes should not be paid, Krzciok states that if indeed the NCAA began giving athletes a salary, players from profitable sports should receive the majority of the money given back to the athletes, while the rest of the sports would get a smaller sum.

“I think I’d probably give most of the money to the money-making sports, and then trickle it down from there to keep it fair,” Krzciok said. “I mean, it makes sense like that.”

While it may be fair to mens basketball and football players, the entirety of youth sports in America would be altered if college athletes were paid based on the revenue they brought in. A significant portion of college-level athletes were standouts in more than one sport as youths. If basketball players and football players earn far more than any other sport, parents will push their children to pursue those two sports instead of sports like soccer, tennis and lacrosse.

Additionally, female college athletes would receive much less money than their male counterparts. For instance, according to businessinsider.com, mens basketball generates an average of $14.2 million at the University of Michigan, while the womens basketball team brings in a mere $300,000. The discrepancy between pay for the two genders would cause an uproar, and rightfully so.

Even within the realm of mens college football and basketball, the dynamics would be changed dramatically if student-athletes began getting paid based on the money they bring the NCAA and the university they attend. Forget seeing variation in the Top 25; the powerhouse programs raking in the most revenue would also rake in the top recruits year after year, without exception.

For these reasons, collegiate athletes should not be given a salary on top of the scholarships they already receive from the university. In theory, paying college athletes for their contributions to the NCAA and school is great, but the financial disarray that would stem from paying student-athletes is too much.

“There is a wide gap in Division 1 in terms of revenue and coaching salaries of the biggest Power Five universities vs. the Group of Five,” Knight said. “Power Five schools may be able to someday offer payments to student-athletes, but even that will raise questions: Is there a value to scholarships? Does that cover all, most or a smaller portion of what student-athletes should be paid? Is it okay if some universities pay more than others to attract student-athletes?”

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