[ The Money Side of Lifeā„¢ ]

To be Paid or Not to be Paid?: That is the Question

By Heather Levin, Conor Bradley on July 31st, 2004 •

The Rose Bowl is down to the final seconds. Your team has struggled long and hard to get here. They're five yards away from scoring the winning touchdown. Tension is high. Silence falls over the crowd as the star quarterback makes the call. The ball is snapped. The pass floats through the air effortlessly and into the hands of the quickest wide receiver the school has seen in years. He jukes one defensive lineman, and dives over the endline to score the winning touchdown. All across the country, fans erupt in cheers. Backs are slapped; toasts are made; bets are won. What a great game!

College athletics have started to rival their professional counterparts for popularity, television ratings and notoriety. As a result, they are more scrutinized and lucrative than ever. For the athletes who provide all of us with such entertainment, there will be parties, awards, and prestige. But the fact is, they will never see a penny of the millions of dollars generated by the final game, or any of the games that brought them there.

Strong cases can be made to pay or not to pay college athletes. With more high school and college phenoms trying to jump to the professional ranks early in search of that lucrative professional contract, this issue won't be going away anytime soon.

I asked Conor Bradley, a former college athlete, to weigh in with his thoughts on the subject. [H. Levin]

The Issues - As Conor Sees Them

While college athletes, technically, can have jobs, no employer (other than donors and alums) in his or her right mind would hire a full-time athlete. All of the free time the player has is devoted to either sports or school during the season and to workouts and school in the off-season. That leaves little time to devote to a job.

Scholarships do provide some help, but teams have a limited number of these to dole out. Walk-ons help sell tickets, but usually never see a dime even in scholarships from the university to which they pledged their heart, soul, and body. Is this a fair trade when universities are making millions of dollars selling jerseys with players' numbers on them and the players are eating peanut butter and jelly for a week straight until their financial aid checks come?

The more traditional thinkers argue that student athletes are able to showcase their skills, however exceptional they may be, because they are enrolled in a program of higher education. College athletics have become big business with large revenue figures at stake, and performing consistently is part of the "real-life" education. You learn quickly that if you don't perform, you don't play, and if you don't play, you don't get to the big professional payday. Boys and girls, welcome to Real World Economics 101.

College athletes should receive some sort of stipend out of the athletic department's budget for help with college expenses. As a former college athlete, I know what it is like to go to school, often early in the morning, spend all afternoon and most of the evening in practice and film sessions, and then hit the books at 10 p.m.

Being a college student is hard enough, much less being a student athlete. Granted, the University offered me an opportunity to be a part of a team and to use my talents to the fullest of my ability, but if they are reaping millions on sales of my jersey, then I should see some of that money as well. That is how business works outside of the collegiate realm. Inside, it should be no different. [C. Bradley]

I think Conor's position is clear, but the question of whether college athletes should be paid will continue to be a heated one for many years. Proponents cry that if the athletes are generating significant income for the school, shouldn't they get a slice of the pie? Detractors protest by saying that free tuition, as well as free room and board should be enough.

Of course, there is the group in the middle, trying to bridge the gap by offering the compromise of athletic stipends to assist with living expenses. As always, the issue is more complicated than it seems. It's obvious there is no easy answer. This issue will continue to be hotly debated in the years to come. At the very least, it's something to ponder next time you sit down at your home team's opener, wearing your favorite player's jersey.

The Bottom Line

Like it or not, college sports are big businesses supported by the hard work of college athletes. This fact alone fuels both sides of the debate, ensuring that this issue will rage on.