During my three years as a member of the Tufts Men’s soccer team, we have been fortunate enough to qualify for the NCAA tournament each year. In addition to a chance to compete for a national championship, the tournament brings some notable advantages. Unlike regular season road trips, away games during the postseason are funded by the NCAA as opposed to our institution, and the results are clear to see. When the NCAA tournament rolls around we no longer have to share beds, breakfast buffets suddenly improve, and the bus Wi-Fi starts working. The running joke amongst my teammates during these trips has been to thank the prominent Division I football and basketball players of our time. Freshman year it was “Thank you Johnny Manziel”. This fall we gave Deshaun Watson our honorary blessing. While nothing more than a joke, it reveals a deeper truth. As Division III soccer players we bring no monetary value to our school and certainly cost the school more than we are worth. However, for the Manziels and Watsons of the world, that could not be further from the truth.
Star football and basketball players fund the smaller sports teams at their school, the salaries of their coaches and athletic department administrators, the $1.9 million salary of NCAA president Mark Emmert, and me, a Division III soccer player they will never meet. In a country that extolls the values of a free market we deprive college athletes of the same right. In any other scenario, NCAA institutions would be violating anti-trust laws by artificially limiting the value of college athletes, but for college sports it is accepted as the status quo. The NCAA is a non-profit organization, yet brings in $11 billion in annual revenue via free labor, which would place the NCAA at number 258 on the Fortune 500 list. I’m not an economics major, but its seems that somewhere in that $11 billion, there should be some loose change to pay the athletes.
There are a wide range of reasons as to why the NCAA cannot or should not pay athletes. But all of the arguments are either self-serving, based on fallacies, or simply misguided. One of the principle justifications against paying athletes is that their salaries would bankrupt athletic departments. But this is blatantly false. Rather than bankrupting the institutions, paying athletes would shift the money from coaches and administrators to the people that fans, boosters, and sponsors pay millions of dollars to see, the athlete. The reality is that at the end of the day, no one is excited to see Nick Saban talk into his headset or Coach K call a timeout. The fans want to see some of the world’s best athletes perform while wearing the jersey of their favorite schools. Shifting money away from John Calipari’s 7 million-dollar salary would not bankrupt the University of Kentucky’s athletic department. It would make their compensation structure more accurately reflect the contributions of its members.
Another oft-cited argument is that these athletes are already paid, since they receive a free education. But the reality is that to play college sports at the top division schools, athletes are implicitly agreeing to receive a college education that is inferior to that of their non-athlete peers. Any student or parent that has taken a campus tour has heard an admissions officer espouse the value of their school’s extra-curricular activities--that the college experience is about so much more than what occurs in the classroom. This is not true for collegiate athletes. A Division I football player will be hard pressed to serve on the student government, to study abroad, or to win a role in the school’s latest production of Hamlet. Playing sports at an elite level is a full-time job that reduces the athletes experience to playing their sport and attending class. As a Division III soccer player, I spend about 25 hours a week between practices, lifts, and extra requirements, such as getting taped before practice, staying after for individual training, and taking ice baths. For weeks with road trips the time spent dedicated to soccer only increases, yet this commitment pales in comparison to what is required of Division I football and basketball players. Most of these athletes are also required to attend summer classes at their schools limiting potential jobs or internships that normal students might have to earn extra money. So not only do these athletes bring in money the average student on an academic scholarship does not, they are also less able to take advantage of the scholarship they receive as compensation.
The football players at Northwestern were on to something when they considered unionizing and declaring themselves employees. Division I athletes sign non-compete agreements, if they transfer they must sit out one year before working in, or literally on, their field, they are subject to random drug tests, and must meet performance expectations to maintain their standing. If this is starting to sound similar to working a nine-to-five, it is because it is. It is exactly what college athletes are doing; the only notable difference is that they do not get paid for their efforts.
With each year, the NCAA is moving closer to the reality of having to pay their athletes. The day of reckoning is approaching. But until the day Division I stars are fairly compensated, I want them to know that they are always welcome to a drink on me, just so I can show them Division III’s appreciation. Let’s be honest, though—that’s probably an NCAA violation.