Why We Can’t & Shouldn’t Pay College Athletes

The idea of paying college athletes over-the-table is almost as old as the idea of paying them under-the-table. The New York Times floated the idea in ’87, with the SMU “Pony Excess” scandal still fresh.

It’s a well-intentioned idea. But it’s an idea that has never translated well to paper.

Until Johnny Manziel came along, apparently. The financial and economic facts of college sports were no different before or after the scandal surrounding the Heisman-winning sophomore QB lended, somehow, new salience — and new momentum — to a movement to “reform” (and that is the word now, “reform”) the NCAA and its “archaic” rules. Inexplicably, Manziel’s cleats stamping across TIME‘s cover next to the headline “It’s Time To Pay College Athletes” has given new spark to the notion that we can build a plausible, equitable system for compensating college stars.

Manziel TIMEThe problem is that it has never been plausible precisely because putting student-athletes on salary or stipend creates more equity issues than it solves. You can’t pay athletes in a way that’s fair to both revenue sports (read: football and men’s basketball) and non-revenue sports. You can’t escape the inevitability that female athletes would, either individually or in the aggregate, bring in smaller paychecks than male athletes. “When you try to work out a plan like this, the concept quickly falls to pieces,” Jonathan Chait writes in New York Magazine.

But put the hard numbers aside for a second. Let’s talk principle. The bargain for all college students has always been simple: Put off, for four years, your ability to earn a living. Your college experience expands your earnings potential over those four years. Take the short-term financial hit, but your diploma, physical proof of your endorsement by a venerable, trusted brand in education, will pay off over the long term. And I know, you already know this stuff — this is well-covered turf, this is ECON 101.

What we’d pay Johnny Manziel — money that couldn’t even be called beer money next to the salary he stands to make in the NFL — is what we used to call “opportunity cost.”

Yes, if we paid the athletes, they wouldn’t be the only students to earn money from their college during college. Paying the starting small forward on the basketball team, you might argue, wouldn’t be any different than the RA in your residence hall on work study. But while The Times weeps for the small forward, the RA probably needs the leg up.

The average law firm pays rookie attorneys $100,000 a year — that’s their opportunity cost. And a hell of an opportunity cost it is for a young lawyer, who likely paid about that much to earn their law degree in the first place. The NFL minimum for a rookie linebacker is $375,000; the NBA’s rookie minimum, more than $473,000. Even college athletes who don’t go pro start their post-college lives with a degree and roughly $27,000 less in college loan debt than the average student — which is to say $0 in debt — thanks to full-ride scholarships from their colleges. That’s slowly becoming a bigger and bigger deal as the cost of earning a degree increases for the rest of us.

Sure, many student-athletes arrive on campus with legitimate, tragic financial needs. “Impoverished football players cannot afford movie tickets or bus fare home,” writes Taylor Branch in The Atlantic. You might set aside Chait’s point that many students arrive on campus with legitimate, tragic financial needs. Unencumbered by an athlete’s practice and game schedule, you’d be right to think a poor non-athlete is probably in a better position to get a side job while earning his degree. But that doesn’t mean the athletic department’s analogous solution for a poor student-athlete — or for any athlete — is to advise them, “Go get yourself an endorsement deal.”

Yes, the system has its quirks. Manziel’s bizarre half-game suspension puts those idiosyncrasies on display. And there are common-sense rule changes the NCAA could make: Create an academic red-shirt. Prevent coaches from jettisoning a player for any reason before they earn their degree, even if it takes five years. Ensure, as Ramogi Huma suggests, that college players’ scholarships truly cover the full cost of attendance. (They often fall a few thousand bucks short.)

But the answer is not to ignore a truth that seems inconvenient for proponents of paying college athletes: we already do pay them, on average, five-figures a year in tuition and fees — about as much as Johnny Manziel apparently didn’t make signing footballs.


UPDATED, Sept. 10: Now Pinkel’s in on this too? For crying out loud.

“I’ve changed my view on this over the past few years just because of the amount of money now that’s in college football,” the Mizzou head football coach said in a post on his website. (Why does he need a website?)

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