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Should College Athletes Get Paid?

41 - Published February 15, 2011 by in College, NCAA

Editor’s Note:  Connor Wilson has a strong opinion on where major college sports should head as college athletics continue to push towards professional levels of organization and demand.  His thoughts are out there, but do you have a better solution?  Or is this not even a problem?  Chime and make your voice heard!  Connor went to a small, D3 liberal arts school anyway, so what does he know?

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For many years I have believed that college athletes were truly amateurs, and that they should not be paid in cash.  Many Division 1 student-athletes enjoyed scholarships, special facilities and first choice in classes.  And at every level within the NCAA, student-athletes (from now on referred to as S-As) would receive priority acceptances to schools over equally, or even more academically, qualified non-athletes.  I was under the impression that these “payments” more than made up for the benefit a school received from having a renowned athletics department.

The Rose Bowl - Ducks vs. Buckeyes

These guys are basically Pro athletes, are they not?

Free schooling at a University (where the SA might not have been admitted) really should be considered a huge salary, but there are caveats.  The largest caveat is that free schooling is only advantageous to the kids, if the S-As are really able to take advantage of it.  And my changing opinion on S-A’s ability to be able to compete in the classroom has wildly influenced my opinion on whether or not they are actually amateur athletes.  This conversation is most relevant at the income-producing Division 1 Athletics level, but lacrosse, and the lower divisions, aren’t that far behind.  D1 Football and Basketball stars, for the most part, spend more time on film, practice and training than they do on their academic pursuits.  To call them SAs in ridiculous.  They are Athletes.  And some are Athlete-Students.

Why do kids attend academic institutions after high school?  Hopefully, the answer is for the academics.  But we all know that is not always the case.  Top HS football and basketball players choose schools based on their sport and not much else.  They choose schools based on the coaches and many will transfer at the drop of a hat to get a better shot.  Academics, graduating and their major are often afterthoughts.  For these two sports in particular, I can actually understand this approach from the players’ side.  They are hoping to make the Pros and are using college to prepare themselves for it, just like I used my government major to get a job with New York City’s Economic Development Corporation (before I got my mind right and came back to lax full-time!).  This makes sense to me.  They are using college to prepare for the next level… perfect actually.

Now where it gets much more sticky is with the schools and the NCAA itself.  Some schools are making BIG time money off of their athletes, especially football and basketball, and the NCAA is absolutely raking in the cash with TV deals, percentages of ticket prices to playoff games and other sources of revenue like branding.  The colleges and the NCAA use players’ likenesses, team names, jersey sales and so much more to make money, but the players (according to the NCAA) shouldn’t see a penny of it.  Is this really preparing them best for the next level?  Or is it infantilizing the “S-As” and creating a larger potential for abuse?  I would argue the latter.

The majority of college athletics is still amateur.  Lacrosse is one of these sports, and this holds true at all levels of the game right now.  Even Syracuse, Hopkins, Maryland, Duke and Princeton aren’t making a killing off of their lacrosse players.  It is, however, something to keep an eye on moving forward, especially as the MLL continues to pragmatically lumber towards nationwide legitimacy and the game continues to see exponential growth and popularity increases.

UMBC UNC lacrosse

Not pro athletes. Photo courtesy of Lax.com. Always great work over there!

My point with college football players and basketball players is that they are no longer amateurs at many schools.  So why keep up the charade?  Both the NBA and the NFL use the NCAA as a minor league, so why don’t we pay these guys to play their sports?  Baseball and hockey both have minor leagues that are the primary breeding grounds for future stars and if kids really want to prep for the big lesgues, that is their best option.  Now, I know that college football and basketball are the biggest NCAA sports and that schools will be unwilling to lose all of the tradition and revenue they receive from their programs.  So I have come up with a solution that allows this to continue.

Create a new NCAA division called NCAA Pro.  Players can be paid up to $100,000 a year.  Each school would create a “Pro Sports” Major and if an athlete were not enrolled in another Major, they would be required to take a regiment of Professional level sports classes each year.  These classes would cover things like contracts, agents, team sports economics, accounting, budgeting, public speaking and other related themes and they would be aimed at helping the athlete deal with the issues they will face at the next level.  They can also be given scholarships to attend the University as a regular student, should they choose, but they will not be required to do so.  This set up would be a more honest portrayal of the current situation and would allow those schools to just go after the players they want (like they do now) without having to represent the kids as just another qualified student.  If an athlete completes 4 years of varsity play OR their Pro Sports Major, they should also be given the option for 4 years of free school, purely as a student, at any time over the next 10 years after their eligibility expires.  Of course, they would have to maintain a minimum GPA once they were full-time students to keep the scholarship.

College kids at schools like Oregon and LSU can still go to games and they can still see the Oregon and LSU football teams play.  They will basically be the exact same teams with the same players, in the same stadiums.  The only real difference is that no one will be kidding themselves that these guys are just your average student-athletes, like volleyball players, the MCLA lax team and the Crew team.  These guys will be pros (they basically are now when you consider how they’re treated), people will still go to games and cheer, and the integrity of our academic institutions won’t be as tarnished by the impact of big-time sports.  But by the schools basically owning their teams, they will still benefit from the press and the revenue, and these minor league Pros will be allowed to be what they are, instead of being forced into an outdated model that the NCAA thinks they should still be.

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