Debate Club

College Athletes Are Already Paid With Their Education


Remember the line in the Mel Brooks movie Blazing Saddles where one of the cowboys is offered a tin shield and sneeringly says, "Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges"?

I always think of that line when I'm asked if NCAA Division I athletes should be paid for their collegiate contributions. It invokes the strained logic of Blazing Saddles because college athletes are already paid. They're just not paid what the market is capable of bearing.

Whoa, wait a minute. What do I mean they're already paid?

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Well, let's set aside the value of their free or partially-funded education and assume no college athlete goes to class or actually gains any knowledge in class that has a useful value. That purposeful sarcasm (or cynicism) removes a healthy percentage of what many readers consider to be the bulk of the collegiate athlete's current compensation.

However, since you can't trade knowledge (i.e., mental enhancement) for an immediate financial asset, higher education is often (and falsely) assumed to have no value for athletes.

But even removing this educational asset from the equation, NCAA Division I athletes still receive expert coaching (that could lead to a professional career as an athlete or as a coach), on-campus housing, frequent meals (if not elaborate training tables), non-uniform clothing, free medical consultation, free access to state-of-the-art training facilities and free professional development (media/public relations, life skills, networking, etc.). That all has to count for something, right?

But what about cash for student athletes? Shouldn't they get money too?

Oh, so this discussion is about the Benjamins, eh? Well, why is that? Is the amount (the perceived value) a college athlete currently receives not enough? Are we asking this last question because an NCAA coach might be making millions (or a very hefty six-figure salary)? Or is it because the student-athlete's university is making millions from ticket and merchandise sales? Is it because the athlete's athletic conference is headed to the bank with a massive TV deal? Or is it because the NCAA is raking in billions off the performances of college athletes?

[See Photos: March Madness 2013]

We know the answers to all of those questions are yes but if some "force for good" wants to pay the athletes cash, it seems likely some other party will have to take less.

And that's where this discussion stops. Because the NCAA, major BCS conferences, big-time universities and well-paid coaches are all expert at practicing the first law of capitalism … which is to capitalize on inefficient suppliers. Simply stated, college athletes have been convinced they are paid enough. And their appropriate share of the revenue pie has been given to others.

But I predict, someday, in the not too distant future, college athletes will learn they are leaving money on the training table and they will grasp that the whole NCAA pyramid crumbles unless they perform. When that day arrives, collegiate athletes will start getting paid in cash instead of psychology classes, track suits, knee braces and ice baths.

Richard Burton

About Richard Burton Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University

college athletics

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