Should college athletes be paid?
The hullabaloo surrounding this issue has diminished now that the college basketball and football seasons are on hiatus. But University of Chicago economics senior lecturer Allen Sanderson stated his opinion on the matter very clearly during his presentation at the Humphrey Forum on April 21, 2016: pay college athletes.
A former advisor on the City of Boston’s bid for the 2024 summer Olympics (they shouldn’t) and to the City of St. Louis in retaining the Rams professional football team ($1 billion for a new stadium but don’t expect the Rams to stay—they didn’t), Sanderson unsurprisingly presented a slew of economic statistics which showed the enormous amount of money made in college sports commonly referred to as “amateur athletics.” As a result of this “uniquely American phenomenon,” the highest paid public employee in 47 of 50 U.S. states is either a basketball or football coach. Thirty years ago CBS TV paid 12 million in inflation-adjusted dollars to televise the NCAA Basketball Tournament; their new contract calls for the network paying the NCAA $1 billion a year.
In light of these vast sums, it’s no surprise that former collegiate performers like Cain Colter and Ed O’Bannon challenged their role (and incomes) as “student athletes.” Nor should it shock anyone that prominent anti-trust lawyer Jeffrey Kessler has instituted a class action lawsuit against the NCAA on the price-fixing of wages and incidental expenses by members’ athletic departments.
What is startling is that the system still exists despite only 20 of these NCAA member athletic programs actually turning a profit from football or basketball. Why? Call it behavioral economics or public choice theory, the reason is a few connected individuals and special interests have a lot of skin in these particular games. Under the current set-up schools like Rutgers which already redistributes $47 million from its general fund to its athletic department would likely have to stop subsidizing all its athletic programs from student fees and tuition. If college athletes in major sports became paid employees, Sanderson predicts the first people to be affected would be athletic administrators, coaches, and their assistants in those particular sports—they’d lose their jobs.
Solutions such as redistributing revenue or increasing athletes’ stipends for certain items are not feasible in Sanderson’s opinion. The current system succeeds because the marginalization and exploitation of athletes, primarily people of color in football and basketball, generates enough revenue to support athletes performing in non-revenue producing sports of college athletic departments, participants who are primarily white and middle-class. In Sanderson’s view, this is “a different kind of exploitation,” a “reverse [form of] Robin Hood and we shouldn’t be happy about it.”
Whether one agrees with what moderator Doug Hartman termed a “hidden form of affirmative action for white kids,” such a structure probably will not survive scrutiny in judicial court or in the court of public opinion. Efforts like those of Kessler and others foreshadow the doom of collegiate athletics as it exists today. In order for collegiate athletics to be truly equitable for its participants, Sanderson wants those people with the most skin in the games, namely college administrators and coaches, “to be more honest about what’s going on.”