Students Are Not Professional Athletes

College athletics are a vehicle for receiving an education.

Close up detail of football referee's legs after a yellow penalty flag has been thrown.
By + More

Let's be clear about the context within which this question usually arises. It usually does not come up at those NCAA Division I institutions that struggle to fund their athletic programs or in Division II or Division III. There is a misconception that athletic programs in general are profitable and institutions are making money hand-over-fist. The truth is that only a fraction of the programs are profitable while most operate at a cost to the institution. The question of pay arises primarily in reference to student-athletes in the sports of football and basketball at Division I institutions with high-profile, high-income athletics programs. The argument is that since such institutions receive millions of dollars from the performance, the student-athletes should be paid.

Students are not professional athletes who are paid salaries and incentives for a career in sports. They are students receiving access to a college education through their participation in sports, for which they earn scholarships to pay tuition, fees, room and board, and other allowable expenses. Collegiate sports is not a career or profession. It is the students' vehicle to a higher education degree. This access is contingent upon continued enrollment, participation in the sport for which they received the scholarship, and academic eligibility. The NCAA Student Assistance Fund can be used to help those student-athletes who have unusual needs in excess of the usual cost of attendance. A high percentage of student-athletes graduate without the burden of student loans, which most other students accumulate.

[Read Marc Edelman: NCAA College Athletes Should Be Paid]

Student-athletes are amateurs who choose to participate in intercollegiate athletics as a part of their educational experience, thus maintaining a distinction between student-athletes who participate in the collegiate model and professional athletes who are also students.

A fundamental NCAA commitment under the collegiate model is to student-athlete well-being, where institutions have the responsibility to establish and maintain an environment in which student-athletes' activities are conducted to encourage academic success and individual development as an integral part of the educational experience. Another commitment is to sound academic standards. Intercollegiate athletic programs should be maintained as an important component of educational programs, and student-athletes should be an integral part of the student body. Each institution's admissions and academic standards for student-athletes should be designed to promote academic progress and graduation and be consistent with the student body in general.

[Check out 2013: The Year in Cartoons.]

It is clear that, in addition to their academic course loads, student-athletes' physical conditioning, practice and competition schedules make it difficult for many of them to take on part-time employment to supplement their institutional aid. So, perhaps the question should be whether it is reasonable that student-athletes should have additional resources typical for full-time students who work during the academic year, since scholarships do not cover all living expenses and many student-athletes do not have the opportunity to earn income to cover those expenses or to afford simple social outings with friends, an important component of college life, well-being and holistic development.

There is discussion in the NCAA about increasing financial aid to allow student-athletes to have funds typical of working full-time students at their institutions. Paramount in those discussions are the well-being of the student and the ethics of amateur sports.

Horace Mitchell is president is California State University—Bakersfield NCAA Division I Board of Directors.

  • Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Washington's Football Team Change Its Name?
  • Read Pat Garofalo: NFL Playoffs Highlight the Absurd ‘Blackout Policy'
  • Jamie Stiehm: Barack Obama and Former Washington Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan Lost in 2013