Agree to disagree: Should student athletes be paid?


Fred Squillante/Columbus Dispatch/MCT

Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor (2) watches the confetti swirl around him Sugar Bowl at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Tuesday, January 4, 2011.

By TPN Sports Staff

On the topic of employment, two of our staff members debated the issue of paying student athletes. Opinions differed on scholarships and salary systems, but both agreed on the unfairness of a particular NCAA rule.

College athletes are already compensated fairly through athletic scholarships.

Sean Tierney: Disagree. This is the argument against paying players that I hear most often. While I understand the idea and sentiment of this argument, in my own mind it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Schools are allowed to decide who pays to come to their school and who doesn’t. Across the board, they have determined that top athletes are people they want to have at their school, and so they award them scholarships to attract them and attend schools they wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise.

They do the exact same thing with students who are exemplary and others who need financial support. But these students can then go and get a job working for their school that will pay them for their labor on top of their scholarship. Student athletes, on the other hand, often devote more time to their sport than these students do to their jobs and make way more money for the school and NCAA — yet get zero dollars.

A scholarship is not a free pass for the NCAA to use athletes as free labor. It’s not that way for regular students, so why would it be so for student athletes? Maybe it’s because these athletes can be cash cows that schools and the NCAA wants to unjustly milk them for all they’ve got, and that’s not okay, especially when many of these players desperately need some form of income for themselves and their families.

Trent Leonard: Agree. Let’s look at Pitt, for example, where full-time in-state tuition is $18,628 for the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. Even ignoring housing and other costs, that’s a bare minimum of $74,512 that a student athlete doesn’t have to pay during their college career. That’s a $74,512 head start on their peers who often graduate with copious amounts of debt. A full athletic scholarship is nothing to scoff at.

I get that being a student athlete is challenging. It’s not easy having to juggle hours of practice along with hours of schoolwork. But an annual “salary” of at least $18,628 is perfectly fair compensation for the work and entertainment that most student athletes contribute. The only exceptions are athletes who become so famous that their commercial worth far exceeds the value of their scholarship (think Zion Williamson) or the walk-ons who put in the same practice time as their teammates without getting compensation.

There should be a system in place that pays a salary to college athletes.

ST: Agree. The simple, straightforward answer to this question of paying athletes is yes. No matter how complicated it may be to figure out how this is done, it should be done. In the 2017 fiscal year, the NCAA reported revenue of $1.1 billion, and $0 went to any of the roughly 460,000 athletes upon which the organization is built.

How this should be done is complicated. One starting point is to be honest about which NCAA sports are profitable and which are not — a distinction that should be made at the team level and indiscriminate of sport, gender or division. It’s an unfortunate reality, but most college sports are a money drain. They’re essentially being funded by football and basketball teams. If a team is not profitable, the athletes should not make a profit. So, the pool of athletes up for pay shrinks significantly, likely containing only football and basketball players from the top divisions.

From there, I think that the money should be treated similar to scholarships. Each team can be given an equal amount of money from the NCAA and forced to allocate a certain percent of their own profits from that sport to a fund, with a hard cap for each team within a given sport. From that fund, coaches can distribute the money as they see fit among players, just like they distribute scholarships.

TL: Disagree. I just don’t think there’s any feasible way of paying college athletes that wouldn’t cause more problems than it solves. There’s too many questions to ask. Do you pay the star quarterback the same as the baseball team’s backup catcher? What about the athletic programs that don’t bring in a major profit? How long until the money starts to run dry? How could you ensure that the wealthiest programs wouldn’t just offer more money or that financial corruption wouldn’t run rampant? The whole prospect just seems messy, and I shudder envisioning a future where Pitt’s best running back misses a whole season while holding out due to a contract dispute.

College athletes should be able to profit off their own name and likeness.

ST: Agree. This is the most frustrating part of the NCAA’s “amateur athlete” policy. The NCAA prohibits any and all athletes from using their image as college athletes to make money in any way. This means no merchandise sales, endorsement deals or paid appearances. Just imagine any of the ways an average person would go about making money for themselves, and it’s most likely prohibited for NCAA athletes. It is a blatant violation of these athletes’ rights and freedoms to profit off themselves, all while the NCAA makes about a billion dollars a year off of them.

One story that illustrates the ridiculousness of this policy that of Donald De La Haye, who was a kicker on the University of Central Florida football team in 2017. De La Haye also had a very successful YouTube channel where he chronicled his day-to-day life as a student athlete with videos about school, football and life. Due to YouTube’s ad revenue, he made some money from this secondary passion. But in August of 2017, the NCAA demanded that De La Haye de-monetize his channel because he was making money off his football career. De La Haye decided not to give in. His scholarship was revoked and he was forced to leave the UCF football team.

TL: Agree. This is one we can all agree on. Pretty much everyone agrees that this rule is stupid, except for the NCAA. If an athlete wants to sell his autograph, he should be able to do so. If Nike approaches a student athlete and wants to give them an endorsement deal, they should be able to take it. That should be common sense. These are personal transactions completely outside the NCAA’s jurisdiction — and yet, somehow, the NCAA has forbidden its athletes from profiting off of their own name.

Remember when Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor sold some of his former sports gear to get a discounted tattoo? It was hyped up as a massive scandal, with the media reacting as though he’d killed someone. He was suspended five games by the NCAA. In a perfect world, scenarios like that would be perfectly acceptable for student athletes. If you become so good at your craft that people outside the NCAA want to give you money, the NCAA should have no say in whether or not you can take it.