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The NCAA and college sports, part 1: what the debate is not

Jan. 8, 2018
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It’s the hot topic on pretty much every college campus: should NCAA revenue-generating college athletes be compensated for their performance or not? It’s a fraught topic, with people on both sides of the issue passionately arguing their case at every opportunity. But what exactly is at the crux of the debate? Let’s explore it together.

The Debate

Student athletes do not attain a direct percentage of the revenue produced for the NCAA. For people voting “Pay”, part of the concern is players and exploitation. The NCAA uses its millions of dollars in profit to help institutions and faculty, whereas the welfare of student athletes is treated as more of an afterthought. Moreover, the specter of exploitation is exaggerated by the strain on student athletes’ education and financial situations.

People against paying student athletes focus on the idea of “amateurs” and corruption. For people voting “No Pay”, intercollegiate sports are meant as recreation and as preparation for professional sports. A professional status means a shift in priorities and an increased risk of corruption.

However, both sides mention concerns involving factors outside of monetary compensation.


Sport schedules do not allow student athletes to fully invest in their education. In fact, players practice well beyond the NCAA guidelines of 20 hours per week. Meanwhile, curriculum standards are around average or made to be easily passible. These conditions are a recipe for lackluster investment, which creates college athletes who either do not graduate or are extremely unprepared for non-sports-related careers.

On one hand, education priorities may drop even lower if student athletes are paid. On the other, many of these students are more focused on sports as a professional career than education anyway. Still, while education is important, it is not the issue at the heart of the compensation debate.

Athlete Demographics

Most athletes in high-revenue intercollegiate sports are African-American, with critics pointing out that players often come from low-income and poor educational backgrounds. This issue calls back to the question of exploitation: are the student athletes who could use compensation to lessen financial burdens being taken advantage of?

Still, this is another important problem that is separate from the actual issue. Burdens of low-income and poor educational backgrounds are issues on their own. While there is a case to be made for lessening the financial burdens of student athletes who may or may not continue on to professional athletic careers, that doesn’t have anything to do with the question of whether or not intercollegiate sports count as work for which student athletes should be compensated.

The Concept of “Amateurism”

The NCAA emphasizes “amateurism” as the barrier preventing intercollegiate sports from being considered professional. In fact, the NCAA is passionate about maintaining this amateur status: “The NCAA promotes amateurism to create a level playing field for all student-athletes. The young men and women who compete in college sports are students first, athletes second. If you want to compete in NCAA sports at a Division I school you must be an amateur athlete.” In other words, according to the NCAA, intercollegiate sports are for amateurs, not paid professionals.

But does amateurism necessitate a lack of payment? Similar to internships, amateurs are often expected to trade labor for experience and training. However, the internship payment debate has also become a hot topic in recent years. The biggest issue here is that the value of experience or training does not always compensate for the labor and time commitment expected from amateurs.

Finding a Solution 

The bottom line is this: if there is revenue being made, especially a substantial profit, the service provider should be compensated. Perhaps the players should be paid as a separate league from professional athletes; after all, big intercollegiate sports have enough relevance to become a separate entity.

With a separate league, we may create a sports level for athletes from freshman to senior year, or one to four years beyond high school. This would cover the draft pool age-limit gap. The league could have regional teams to allow multiple colleges on the same team. This league can be open to those who do not attend school, though college teams should still exist as their own entity.

A separate league may be more beneficial than current the back and forth of this debate. Not every college sport needs a separate league; we need only create leagues for sports producing significant profits. Operating as an individual league will allow for direct compensation. Players may also receive proper compensation for brand representation or for having their image used in games and promos.  

In conclusion, money is an important part of the debate, but it is not the major concern: fans appear to disapprove of the treatment athletes receive. Perhaps the NCAA’s care towards student athletes, or lack thereof, is the real cause for criticism.

So what exactly does the NCAA do for student-athletes? Find out in part 2, up tomorrow.