How can we compensate student-athletes?

College athletes drive a billion-dollar industry, and how to compensate them is a hotly debated issue. Here’s one solution.

By Sam Zacher

Imagine 100,000 fans screaming their heads off, brandishing jerseys of their favorite college’s athletes, and munching on stadium food, with the whole scene captured on national TV.

As students at the University of Chicago, we’re about as disconnected from big-time college sports as you can be. We compete in DIII, rarely see home stands filled up, and attend an institution that prides itself on the liberal arts, serious thought, breakthroughs in economics and science research, and a quirky student image—none of which involves athletics.

Nonetheless, the ongoing debate about whether or not to pay student-athletes is gaining traction, particularly in a month like this, during which everyone’s going mad during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

The scene described above portrays many top DI football games, which bring in unfathomable amounts of revenue. Many people argue that the athletes (primarily football and basketball players, those in moneymaking sports), without whom universities would not make millions of dollars, should be paid for their work on the field and court.

Student-athletes are increasingly incentivized to depart from college early for the pros, where they can make millions, especially if they come from disadvantaged backgrounds, in which case the instant cash can boost them and their families out of poverty.

All of this clouds the primary reason for college: education. Right now, especially for young, talented basketball players, college is a one-year pit stop on the path to the NBA—we’re in the “one and done” era. Athletes like Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, and John Wall played college ball for about five months and attended college for less than one year before bouncing to the promise land.

Many are calling for college student-athletes to somehow be paid: A recent Washington Post poll reports that 33 percent of Americans support such compensation (64 percent of Americans oppose).

On the March 23 episode of NBC’s Meet the Press, NCAA President Mark Emmert stated that this issue is being “aggressively debated,” although the decision is ultimately up to university representatives, not NCAA officials.

Emmert claims that professionalizing student-athletes through financial compensation transforms them into “unionized employees,” which is not the correct response in the current situation. Coincidentally, the National Labor Relations Board recently ruled that Northwestern football players are, in fact, employees of the university and have the right to unionize. All this does right now is allow the players to collectively bargain with the university, but it could certainly spark a change in the world of college athletics.

Emmert does believe that the solution is NCAA-sanctioned “miscellaneous expensive allowances” for athletic programs, to be used for everything from helping student-athletes with family emergencies to flying close relatives to watch the athletes’ games.

Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education and a former Harvard basketball player, also appeared on the Meet the Press episode. He opined that incentives for coaches aren’t consistent with the educational mission of college. According to him, incentives for winning are 11 times as large as they are for student-athletes’ performance in the classroom. Duncan believes the general system needs to be changed so that sports are thought of as a “vehicle for education” instead of the converse.

Reggie Love, former Duke basketball and football player and former personal aide to President Obama, also believes that increased educational incentives need to be implemented. He believes student-athletes should also have access to free graduate education in addition to the opportunity to return to complete a college education after a professional sports career.

Duncan and Love’s ideas are just what are needed: stronger incentives for students to stay in college longer. I don’t believe that basketball players should be required to stay at least two years in college as opposed to one, which is the current rule, before entering the NBA draft, but more years in college is obviously better educationally. Extended time in the NCAA game would also exponentially increase the talent in a sport like college basketball, which loses many of its stars after just one season.

I completely disagree with the 33 percent of Americans who believe college athletes should be paid (in addition to scholarships), at least while they’re in school—giving any more power and influence to 18- to 21-year-olds, who should be obtaining a college education, while lifting them onto an even higher celebrity platform at their respective schools, would be detrimental to college atmospheres, in which student-athletes should be equals with their peers.

That’s why I believe the NCAA should allow institutions to set aside money for players to collect upon graduation. This amount would be standardized across divisions (to avoid increased recruiting advantages within divisions and subdivisions) based on total revenue brought in by that sport. It could only be collected upon graduation, so student-athletes who leave college early for the exorbitant cash-out in the pros wouldn’t receive said funds.

Additionally, players’ families in need could apply to the school to receive any portion of this amount while the student-athlete is in college, so that players wouldn’t feel forced to go to the pros early because of a disadvantaged family financial situation.

Moreover, Love’s idea has lots of merit: A second scholarship at that same school would also be available for any student-athlete, which could be a graduate school scholarship for that same student-athlete or a college scholarship for a family member.

This potential solution financially incentivizes players to graduate and complete a college education, and allows them to not worry about their families while they compete in collegiate athletics. An even bigger incentive is the opportunity for a student-athlete to pursue a career outside sports, or for a relative to attain a college education, which would certainly make many players of football, basketball, and baseball (sports with the most athletes leaving early) seriously consider staying in college for a couple extra years. But remember, this would all only be available if the student-athlete graduates college.

There will always be players like Duke’s Jabari Parker, one of four player-of-the-year candidates this season, who enter college knowing they’re highly likely to be drafted in a couple years and make millions, barring injury. However, there are not many of them. The purpose of this policy is to catch the sizable group of players who consider leaving college early. It also addresses the principal problem, namely, that student-athletes are at the center of college sports, a monstrous moneymaking business, but aren’t receiving any sort of compensation outside of scholarships. Schools won’t be able to pay athletes nearly enough to level with the incoming revenue, but it’s still some compensation, which addresses the issue.

Radical changes could be coming, and this situation provides an opportunity for a win-win: Student-athletes could receive “what they deserve,” according to some, along with incentives for continued education, the primary purpose of college.