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False Equivalences Used to Deny Paying College Athletes

I recently walked away from a town hall session sponsored by the National Association of Black Journalists scratching my bald head. I was miffed and a bit bemused to hear panelists conclude that it was probably unreasonable to think about paying college athletes.

Their rationale was the same I have heard echoed by others who argue that the biggest challenge to the proposition is rooted in issues of equity.

The argument goes something like this: If colleges start paying football players, who have advocated for pay, they must pay other athletes at the same level because the law – presumably Title IX – demands equal treatment of all athletes.

On the surface, this line of reasoning sounds somewhat reasonable. But when one digs beneath the surface and looks at the issue in light of how the real world operates, it is a classic case of a false equivalence.

I frankly believe it is time out for using this trite and baseless line of reasoning to defend a system that essentially allows college sports programs – especially the “big” ones – to use certain athletes to make millions and millions of dollars while depriving them of any right to share in the revenues or gain any immediate financial benefit from their efforts.

Some argue that athletes typically receive scholarships to pay for their educations, and that should be enough. Some have even argued that allowing colleges to pay athletes would give larger schools an unfair advantage, as if they don’t already have one.

It is a tale of modern-day sharecropping, not much different from what Southern planters did to African-American farm hands for many years. Plantation owners often offered them shacks to live in on their properties and very menial wages in exchange for hard labor that earned many owners much wealth and, with it, power. It was not a righteous system then, and it is not a righteous system now.

But arguments of false equivalence continue to be used to justify a collegiate sports system that is far from equitable.

For the record, various sources define a false equivalence as a logical fallacy used to describe a set of circumstances that appear to be equal but are not because the argument lacks consistency.

“A common way for this fallacy to be perpetuated,” a YouTube video by Audiopedia posits, “is one shared trait between subjects is assumed to show equivalence, especially in order or magnitude, when equivalence is not necessarily the logical result.”

The video adds that the claim of equivalence doesn’t hold water “because the similarity is based on oversimplification or ignorance of additional factors.” However, it concludes, “only a passing similarity is required to cause this fallacy to be able to be used.”

This pattern appears to be abundantly clear when arguments against paying college athletes are put forth, especially the ones that claim equality is the prevailing issue.

Opponents of propositions to pay athletes commonly question how to justify paying college football players more than other athletes, as if we live in a world where everyone earns the same amount of money regardless of occupation or title.

In fact, one does not have to look beyond college athletics to see the hypocrisy of that argument.

In 2012, USA TODAY reported that 42 major college football coaches earned at least $2 million a year. Alabama’s Nick Saban was at that time the highest-paid, according to the newspaper, pulling in about $5.5 million. In 2017, it was reported that Saban earned more than $11 million. Nine other coaches earned at least $5 million, including Kevin Sumlin, who reportedly was paid an additional $10 million by Texas A&M after he was fired last year.

At the same time, there continue to be wide disparities in pay for men and women college basketball coaches, especially in comparison to football coaches. A 2012 New York Times article reported that the average salary for NCAA Division 1 men’s coaches in any sport was roughly $267,000 compared to $98,000 for women’s sports coaches. The median salary for Division 1 men’s basketball coaches in 2010, the report said, was about $329,000 compared to about $172,000 for women. reported that the 12 highest paid men’s college basketball coaches in 2018 earned between $2.6 million and $7.1 million. CNN reported that the best paid women’s basketball coach was a man earning roughly $2 million.

The simple reality is that all sports do not generate the same level of revenues, or fan interest for that matter, so there is no reasonable expectation that all coaches should be paid equally. And there is certainly no expectation or practice that college professors are to be paid at a level equal to coaches. Not even all professors are paid equally. And the disparities grow greater based on the size and makeup of universities.

So why do efforts to pay college athletes continue to be rejected based on the need to first develop an equitable system of compensation?

As unpopular as it might be to conclude, I believe one major factor is race. Most of the athletes who have dared to broach the subject are Black. And, much like political debates, when Black people voice concerns about unfair treatment, their arguments often are rebuffed by those prone to use false equivalencies or to outright dismiss the long history of discrimination and subjugation that has largely marked the African-American experience.

I have come to expect that from people with blind spots or those prone to have conversations about race out of historical context. But it was far more disappointing to hear a panel of Black journalists echoing the same kinds of arguments. I walked away from that recent NABJ Town Hall session not only scratching my bald head, but shaking it in unbelief.

I say without equivocation: Enough with the false equivalences. Pay college athletes what they are worth based on the revenues they help generate. In theory, that is how the rest of the world operates, including the sports world.

Dr. Robbie R. Morganfield is the Cleo Fields Endowed Professor in Mass Communication and Department Head at Grambling State University. His research and creative work revolve around race, religion and media.

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