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Problems with Paying College Athletes

Heisman Trophy Winner Cam Newton

I recently attended a conference where I heard a very intelligent attorney contradict himself over the course of an afternoon. His diametrically opposed opinions are ones I think are not uncommon amongst college football fans. Early on in the day, he admonished college athletic departments for relying on direct institutional support and state government subsidies to in order to operate in the black. Later that afternoon, he made the case for why college athletes should be paid.

I’m not sure you can have it both ways.

The first question I ask people when they say college athletes should be paid is: where is the money going to come from? If you’re unaware, the NCAA released data showing that only 14 programs are turning a profit without having to rely on institutional support (like student fees or a check cut directly from the university coffers).

Although the NCAA did not list the 14 schools turning a net profit, Notre Dame is one of them. Athletic Director, Jack Swarbrick, has revealed that Notre Dame actually pours money back into the college’s coffers, to the tune of about $10 million in 2009. LSU tells me they are also one of the 14, having sent about $8 million back to the university last year.

Other schools that have been confirmed to be part of the 14: Alabama, University of Missouri, University of Texas, University of Florida, University of Tennessee and Ohio State University, and Nebraska. BYU’s athletic director also recently confirmed that BYU has operated in the black for the past three years.

So, where is the money supposed to come from to pay these athletes?

Even if we could get past this issue, I see a number of other problems. Here are some of my questions:

How do you decide which athletes are paid? Is it just in revenue-producing sports? Is it every athlete playing in those sports or just the elite?

Here is the second big problem. Actually, it’s probably the first, but I chose to focus on the issue of finances first. You cannot pay players without invoking Title IX. Safely assuming that any pay-for-play plan would pay male football and basketball players, you run into huge issues with federal law. More money will have to be devoted to women’s sports and it’s highly likely it’s men’s sports outside of football and basketball that will suffer. And, again, where is all this money going to come from?

Even if Title IX weren’t an issue (and let me just say, without revision to these federal laws, college athletes will never be paid), there are plenty of other problems standing between college athletes and their big pay day:

How much do you pay players? Is it one set amount for every athlete no matter the sport or the school in order to keep things fair? At least within a sport I think it has to be the same, otherwise schools with more money will have the advantage.

If you let athletes get paid for endorsements (which could avoid the first problem I outlined above), will it give some programs an unfair advantage? Playing for Alabama or Ohio State is bound to give you more endorsement opportunities (and more lucrative ones) than playing for Tulsa.

I see the same problem with allowing athletes to profit off merchandise sold with their name or number, like jerseys. Playing for Florida is going to give you greater opportunity to make money off merchandise than playing for Western Michigan.

Another way to pay player and avoid the first problem I outlined is to allow agents to pay players. Darren Heitner over at the Sports Agent Blog recently wrote a post advocating the lifting of all regulations against agents paying players. Heitner believes there would be no harm to the athletes from this situation and that it would allow the market to dictate what a player is worth.

Aside from the initial concerns I have regarding the influence these agents would have and the types of promises they could elicit from players about being paid back in the future, I have another bigger concern. Could these agents pay a player to choose a specific school? And what’s to stop a big car dealership in Athens from slipping money to an agent so he can encourage a player to attend the University of Georgia? (Thanks to @BrotherhoodSpt for pointing me to his blog on the subject, which included a link to Heitner’s piece.)

Will sports that pay athletes have to break from the NCAA? I think so. Tack on new administrative costs as those sports are forced to form new leagues to manage their sport.

There are far too many serious questions to answer for me to jump on the pay-college-athletes bandwagon. Without even getting into whether college athletes should be paid, I just don’t see a scenario where college athletes can be paid without allowing the gap to grow between the have and have-nots.

About Kristi Dosh

Kristi A. Dosh is the founder of BusinessofCollegeSports.com and has served as a sports business analyst and contributor for outlets such as Forbes, ESPN, SportsBusiness Journal, Bleacher Report, SB Nation and more. She is also the author of a book on the business of college football, Saturday Millionaires. Kristi is a sought-after consultant and speaker on topics related to the business of college sports and a former practicing attorney. Click to learn more
14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Pingback: How Profitable is Ohio State University Athletics Department? «

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