Should College Athletes Be Paid?

An athletic scholarship at Wake Forest University includes books, tuition and thousands of dollars per semester to rent an apartment, pay utilities and purchase food and other personal items.

Gary Clark, a senior who was expected to this month with a degree in mathematics, says athletes deserve a little more.

“Let’s say you have $10 a ticket and 10,000 people at every game. The school is definitely making more than what your scholarship costs. Football and basketball bring in a lot of revenue,” says the 21-year-old, who plays guard on the men’s basketball team.

“At a lot of schools, players come from underprivileged families. I know we are getting a scholarship, but some folks don’t have cash to get something to eat when the school cafeteria is closed, or money to buy a used car,” he continues. “I am not saying we should get paid with a full-time salary, but a stipend would be nice.”

The National Collegiate Athletic Association governs intercollegiate sports under the premise of amateurism. NCAA President Mark Emmert says that premise is incompatible with the idea of paying players. But “amateur” in no way means “nonprofit.” The NCAA signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion contract last year with CBS and Turner Sports to air March Madness, the men’s Division I basketball tournament. College football’s Bowl Championship Series is in the midst of a $125 million television deal with ESPN. A deep run during March Madness or a victory in a high-profile BCS bowl game can mean millions of dollars both to the university and to its conference. The monetary award for the athletes themselves? Zero.

The long-running debate about whether to pay players for their athletic accomplishments has garnered renewed attention recently due to a rash of scandals involving some of the nation’s highest profile players and programs. In a story that aired in March on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” several former Auburn University football players recounted receiving cash from boosters during recruiting trips and after games.

Auburn quarterback Cam Newton won the 2010 Heisman Trophy while leading the Tigers to the BCS national title but spent much of the season dogged by an NCAA investigation into allegations Newton’s father demanded $180,000 from Mississippi State University in exchange for his son’s commitment to play there. Mississippi State refused the offer, and Newton enrolled at Auburn, although there is no indication a “pay-for-play” demand was made or accepted by the school.

Elsewhere, University of Georgia star wide receiver A.J. Green was suspended four games after selling a game-worn jersey for $1,000. Five Ohio State University football players, including potential Heisman candidate Terrelle Pryor, are facing five-game suspensions in 2011 for selling memorabilia and receiving discounted services from a tattoo parlor.

The University of North Carolina’s football season was derailed almost before it began after several players were suspended for receiving improper benefits from agents. And the University of Southern California was forced to vacate wins in football and basketball after an NCAA investigation concluded that Heisman-winning running back Reggie Bush and basketball player O.J. Mayo had each received benefits from agents. The violations cost USC its 2005 BCS title and prompted the school to return Bush’s Heisman Trophy.

The scandals have prompted some to question why schools and the NCAA can profit from a player’s on-field exploits while the players cannot. Ironically, soon after Green was suspended, the University of Nebraska auctioned off a game jersey worn by star quarterback Taylor Martinez. The winning bid was $1,000.

“The coaches and other officials get paid quite well. They probably deserve [their money] and work extremely hard, but so do the players,” says attorney Jon King, who is representing former college athletes in a class action suit against the NCAA. “There’s definitely a place for amateur sports, [but] more on the Division II and III levels. It is unfortunate no one is looking for a middle ground.”

That middle ground may come not from the NCAA but from a court. King’s case, brought nearly two years ago, continues to circulate in federal court in California, led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon. Another case, filed in January, is headlined by former University of Cincinnati basketball standout and NBA Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson. Both suits claim the NCAA signed contracts to use athletes’ images in video games, commercials, memorabilia and other footage without adequately compensating the athletes.

Wake Forest University sociology professor Earl Smith succinctly describes the pay-for-play debate as “a complicated issue.”

Smith is the author of the 2007 book Race, Sport and the American Dream, which explores the history of Blacks in sports, the lack of Black leadership at Division I schools and the economic exploitation of Black athletes. He takes issue with the traditional argument that a free or discounted education — in the form of athletic scholarships — is a fair trade for college athletes. Smith points out that not every athlete receives a scholarship, and that such aid is not guaranteed from year to year. Subpar performance, injury, or a coaching change can cost players their scholarship, leaving them without the funds to continue their education.

Smith also notes that the vast majority of collegiate athletes never play professionally, and so never cash in on their athletic ability. In essence, he says, student athletes possess a temporarily valuable commodity that they give away to the NCAA with little hope of recouping its value later.

“The colleges have collaborated with the professional institutions as a farm system,” he says. “There needs to be an equitable system in place so that all student athletes are taken care of, especially when the current system isn’t working,” he says. “Athletics has nothing to do with academics.”

Despite the arguments of Smith and others, most observers believe the NCAA won’t be making any changes to the status quo anytime soon. Emmert has repeatedly said a player compensation system will “never happen” while he is president of the NCAA.

Lynn Hickey, athletic director at the University of Texas-San Antonio and a member of the March Madness selection committee, says Emmert’s emphasis on amateurism is right on target.

“How do you determine who gets what salary? Are you going to pay soccer players as much as football players?” she asks. It is one of the primary arguments against paying players, and one that speaks to a fundamental truth about intercollegiate athletics: most sports programs are economic losers. For many schools, the income generated from football and basketball pays for less popular sports like gymnastics, soccer and lacrosse.

“I hope we can keep collegiate athletics as amateur status sports,” says Hickey. “For a young person to have a chance to compete at a very high level with good support academically and athletically and get a college degree, I just think that is a pretty fair process.”

Dejuan Fulghum agrees. The 21-year-old linebacker helped lead Texas Southern University to the Southwestern Athletic Conference regular season title this past season, earning SWAC Defensive Player of the Year honors in the process. The senior is expected to graduate this month from the historically Black university with a degree in accounting.

“Paying for my school is enough,” says Fulghum, who has a 3.19 GPA and a full athletic scholarship. “Of course anybody would love to get paid for playing a sport. The notoriety is good enough for me. If [professional] football doesn’t work, then I plan on going to graduate school and become a certified public accountant and go from there.”

As TSU Athletic Director Dr. Charles McClelland notes, athletic scholarships are not without economic value. He says the university spends $80,000 to $150,000 per student athlete.

“Student athletes get clothes, dental work, access to tutors, computers and transportation,” McClelland says. “It is not a pay for play. The NCAA sees this as an investment for our student athletes in a college education.”

As for Wake Forest’s Clark, his future plans include attending graduate school or pursuing a job in finance or banking. But if any of his basketball footage or photos are used by the NCAA to promote college basketball, he hopes someone calls him first.

“It is like being in a commercial for a job and not get anything for it,” he says. “[The NCAA] shouldn’t use someone’s picture and then that person not be compensated for it.”