I’m often asked why I am not in favor of paying college athletes. It’s simple: they already get a pretty sweet deal. Note: I’m talking about just the athletes on full scholarship, and particularly college football players.
While I’m busy paying back over $1,000/month for the next 26 years for both my college and law school education, college athletes on full scholarship graduate with zero student loan debt.
One of the arguments I hear most frequently is that college athletes can’t get jobs like other college students. Maybe not, but I think they have the best paid internships of virtually anyone on campus. As a student, I interned for two law firms, for the WTA Tour, and for a judge. While I received invaluable career training, I still have those pesky student loan payments. The same is true for students who want to work in radio, accounting or dozens of other fields. Most do internships for little or no pay and perhaps school credit. Which means in the latter situation the student is actually paying for their internship in the form of tuition for those credits!
Meanwhile, the athletes on campus are getting paid anywhere from $56.25 to $83.25 per hour, at least that’s the calculation Jay Paterno came up with for Penn State’s student athletes. That’s not counting the value of a degree and their future earning power, or the value of the world-class strength and conditioning training or medical treatment they’re receiving.
A Division I strength and conditioning coach tells me he would charge at least $60 per hour if he were training in a private gym. He says in a group situation it would be $30/hour for each person at the absolute minimum. He tells the minimum number of hours per year a football or basketball player would spend training is 124 hours, with 145 hours being very possible. That would make the range of value anywhere from $3720 (124 hours x $30 discount rate) to $8700 (145 hours x $60 rate) for strength and conditioning training alone. And that’s if each workout is only an hour. Double those numbers for two-hour workouts.
Now that we’ve taken a glimpse at what a student-athlete would pay in the private sector for all he or she receives, let’s look at what an athletic department actually spends on each student athlete. Using the University of Florida’s audited financial statements, I have broken down some of the items the athletic department pays for on a per student basis using Florida’s figure of 547 student-athletes for the 2009-2010 school year:
|Meals over break, postseason and training table meals||$1,552.00|
|Office of Student Life (career and academic counseling and support for athletes)||$3,615.00|
|Strength & Conditioning and Equipment Rooms||$2,458.00|
That’s nearly $30,000 per student-athlete the athletic department writes checks for each year. Not included in the above is team travel, coaching salaries, compliance staff salaries, facilities (construction, improvement and maintenance), marketing, or administrative expenses and salaries, all of which are necessary in order for the athletic department to operate so each student-athlete can compete in his/her sport. Those numbers would greatly increase the amount spent per student.
My chart above also doesn’t include the world-class medical treatment received when a student-athlete sustains an injury. For example, renowned doctor James Andrews is a team doctor for both Alabama and Auburn. Dr. Andrews has performed surgery on famous professional athletes like Drew Brees, Michael Jordan and Roger Clemens.
A friend who works in college athletics recently told me about a trip he took to visit a Division I football practice. He described the lavish breakfast buffet set up for the players (which included a carving station – we’re not talking about the powdered eggs and dry cereal you get at the local hotel breakfast buffet), the indoor practice facility to protect players from the heat, the world-class weightlifting equipment and the smoothie bar where athletes could get some refreshment between workouts. Tough life, huh? And this wasn’t even at what I would consider a top Division I football program. This athletic department isn’t even on the self-sustaining list.
So why is public sentiment so strong that college athletes deserve to be paid above and beyond what they’re already receiving? The problem is the amount of money proponents of paying athletes believe each athlete is bringing into the school. However, this is not limited to college athletics. Plenty of interns do valuable work for companies. For example, during my time at one of my law firm internships, I spent months pouring over discovery. I flagged the documents that eventually led to the plaintiff settling the case for$2 million. The law firm’s cut was roughly $600,000. I received nothing but the experience. I believe that experience helped me succeed in law school and boosted my resume so I could obtain other jobs in the legal field as I continued down my career path. The value of most internships is in the experience, not the paycheck.
College athletes play for one of three reasons: (i) experience and exposure for a future career in the sport, (ii) a free education, or (iii) because they love to play. If it’s the first reason, they’re essentially doing an internship, just like I did and many other college students do each year. Many internships are unpaid, regardless of how much money the company makes. Athletes on full scholarship are getting tuition, room and board on top of access to some of the best facilities, strength and conditioning staff, medical treatment, academic support and sometimes far better lodging and dining than other students. Sounds like the best paying internship I’ve heard of.
Why then has the debate over paying college athletes reached an undeniable roar? Likely because of posts like this, where I showed you the profit made by the top football and basketball programs. Fans see those numbers and find it shocking that athletic departments are banking that kind of cash while the athletes go unpaid. Let’s not forget that football or basketball or any other profit-producing sport (of which there aren’t many others) is just one unit of an athletic department. Just like the Coca-Cola Company funds Mr. Pibb even though Coca-Cola is its best-seller, an athletic department uses funds from football and other profit-producers to fund golf and swimming and baseball.
All that being said, I’m not completely opposed to paying athletes when there is a direct correlation between them individually and the school making money. If there’s a way to compensate them for jersey sales and other uses of their likeness without running afoul of Title IX, that makes sense to me. The rest of it is a lot of indirect correlation that can’t be measured. There might be one football player on a team who gets the most media attention, but no one football player gets a team to a bowl game or convinces Nike to sign a multi-million dollar contract with the school.
I’d also be in favor of allowing them to work (which the NCAA currently regulates) to earn extra money, but you have to find a way to allow it without opening the system up to abuse by boosters and other interested parties who overpay for a “job” or “internship” that doesn’t really exist. Skip Oliva at Saturday Down South had a great idea in a futuristic piece he set in the year 2021:
“It also helped that the National Football League, after years of ignoring the problems with its de facto developmental system, took an active role in changing college football. “The big question was always, ‘Do you pay the players?’” ACF’s Meyer said earlier this week. “What we eventually realized was, it’s not whether you pay the players; it’s whether you maximize their professional educational opportunities. And that’s when the NFL stepped in by creating the Spring League.”
Since 2016, the NFL Spring League has provided ten-week internships for college upperclassmen and recent graduates to play an exhibition schedule in NFL cities under the direction of longtime pro coaches. “The kids get paid a stipend for the internship without altering their ‘amateur’ status within ACF,” Meyer said, adding, “It provided a necessary safety valve to relieve the pressure built up under the NCAA.”
For more on this topic, you can read my explanation on why Title IX presents a serious roadblock to paying college athletes. Also, I’ll be posting something in the next week or two about the resources available for student-athletes who are struggling to get by, including the funds I mentioned in yesterday’s post about March Madness money (which, as a sneak preview, include funds for things such as attending family funerals or completing your degree after eligibility or after injury).