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The Renewed Debate: Should College Athletes Be Paid?


This year's first Duke vs North Carolina basketball game drew a massive crowd, with many fans eagerly waiting to see the storied rivalry unfold. Spectators were also incredibly excited to see Zion Williamson, arguably the best college basketball player of all time, take the court for the Blue Devils. However, the story would not turn out the way many people hoped. On Duke's first possession, barely 30 seconds into the game, Zion would go down with a knee injury after his Nike shoe blew open during a cut.

The freak accident and subsequent injury scare for the anticipated top pick in this next year's NBA draft have brought one of the longest and most controversial debates in college sports history roaring back to life. Should college athletes be paid?


The Debate's Return

There are a lot of reasons why this incident caused this debate to return. The last time the argument saw this much media attention, EA was forced to shut down production of its college sports video game titles in 2014. Back then, EA Sports and the NCAA faced lawsuits for use of player likenesses in the video games, even though players were never compensated for it.

This time around, the NCAA is going to have to deal with a different wave of protest, players sitting out of college sports in order to save themselves for the next level. To understand why this is a big deal, you have to look at the Zion situation and how it connects to this big debate.


Obvious #1 Pick

It is no secret that Zion is freakishly good at basketball. The freshman is a force standing in at 6'7 and over 250 lbs. It has been a fairly mutual agreement around the sports world that whichever NBA team is lucky enough to pick first overall next season is going to land him.

It was also very apparent that Zion was ready to play in the NBA after his senior year of high school. However, the NBA has a rule that no player from high school may be drafted. There has to be a gap year. While this gap year does not have to be spent in college, many players decide to play in the NCAA rather than go overseas or take a year off.

Zion had said that he decided to play college ball because he did not want to sit a year. Many people view this year as a waste because he is already past the level he is playing at, and, as we saw against North Carolina, there is the possibility of getting injured as well. This is where the issue of paying athletes comes into play. People ask, why would these players who are obviously going to get a chance at the next level go spend time risking their futures on games that mean very little? There's no incentive to do so.


Huge Profits With No Sharing

Zion's presence on Duke's team this year has caused a lot of excitement around NCAA basketball for sure. Fans run to fill the seats at every home game to catch a glimpse of the Blue Devils squad that seems like a championship winning outfit. The same was true for the rivalry matchup with North Carolina where high profile names were in attendance as well. In a sellout crowd that even included Former President Obama, the ticket prices were far from a bargain.

Hopefully, you are sitting down because the shocking get-in price of roughly $2,927 after fees could make you faint. Yes, the cheapest way to get in and watch the game was by spending almost $3,000, and that doesn't mean you could find that kind of deal anywhere on the secondary market where most tickets are purchased.

Let's put that into perspective. The get-in price at this year's Super Bowl between the Patriots and Rams was also around $2,900-$3,000 depending on the fees involved. A regular season college basketball game was selling nosebleed tickets for the same price as the pro football championship. The most expensive tickets in Durham that night would end up going for over $11,000 per seat.

The money is coming in, but it isn't being shared.

This outrageous pricing is largely credited to the appearance of Williamson on the floor. With his help, Duke was easily able to make over $40 million on game tickets alone for the single event. This astonishing number comes at the expense of Williamson and his teammates who see none of that profit, a realization that many people feel is one of the main issues in the player payment debate. The money is coming in, but it isn't being shared.


The Arguments To Pay

A lot of the arguments that came out around the Zion injury have been around before. In fact, the two main arguments above have been around before too, and not just for basketball. 


Sitting Out Trend

Fans of college football this past season would remember that Nick Bosa, star defensive lineman at Ohio State, decided to sit out the rest of the season after suffering a core muscle injury during a game against TCU. Many people had pegged Bosa as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate, something unheard of in today's game of gunslinging quarterbacks. Bosa's decision was not the first of its kind. This year alone, college football saw players from many top colleges including Michigan, West Virginia, Stanford, and LSU among others skipping bowl games in order to save themselves for the NFL draft. 

In basketball, recruits are turning to other options rather than playing college seasons. Many players attempt to spend the break year training alone or with the NBA G League teams rather than on a college campus. Top recruits in upcoming grad classes have also verbally expressed interest in jumping straight to the NBA if the league's "one and done" college rule is abolished.

All of these players skipping games and expressing interest in skipping the college system altogether shows that there is little incentive for players to spend time developing their game through the NCAA. This trend is cause for concern with their viewership moving forward.


High Levels Of Profit

The Duke vs North Carolina game is a prime example of the massive amount of profits that these schools all make off of their athletics programs. The NCAA topped $1 billion in revenue during the 2016-2017 school year with a large part of it coming from the March Madness tournaments. While this kind of revenue stream does not necessarily mean the profits are as lucrative, it does mean that they are financially sound enough to explore some ideas about how player compensation should be handled.

Large D1 schools make hundreds of millions of dollars off of their sports teams. For example, Texas A&M was able to bring in over $120 million in revenue in 2016 from their football team alone. The average D1 program makes at least $50 million a year from their various varsity athletic programs. With this much money coming into the school, a lot of people feel that there is enough revenue generation to support some sort of system for compensating the players that make it all possible.


Working Hours

The last of the biggest arguments to pay these players comes from the sheer amount of time they put into their sports. It is no secret that college athletes put in a lot of training time in order to perform well in their seasons, just like athletes at all levels. However, the amount of time D1 players spend training is higher than many people realize.

Estimates show D1 athletes on average spend around 37.3 hours for academics and 35.4 hours for athletics per week, while many sports go far beyond that

As of 2017, estimates show that D1 athletes on average spend just as much time on their sports per week as they spend on all of their academic activities combined. These numbers averaged out to around 37.3 hours per week for academics and 35.4 hours per week for athletics as quoted by the NCAA. Although this is the average, there are many sports that go above these numbers, forcing some to put more time into athletics than they do to their academics. For example, D1 football players spend an average of around 44.8 hours a week on athletics, meaning they work less in school during a typical week than they do football. Those who argue for paying athletes will say that these numbers are equal or sometimes greater than the number of hours many in the U.S. work on the job per week.


The Arguments Not To Pay

Scholarships Are Responsible Payment

One of the biggest reasons that people argue against payment is that many of the players already receive full-ride athletic scholarships to attend the schools they play for. The average cost of college tuition each year is about $36,000 in the U.S. This means that D1 athletes who play for 4 years will be receiving an education valued at almost $145,000 for free, not including some of the other side perks that they get from their sport.

Giving the players scholarship money instead of a salary also ensures that they will spend it wisely. Many feel that giving 19-year-old kids, who are fresh out of high school, that kind of money for playing sports is a recipe for them blowing it on dumb decisions. This would cause them to subsequently not be able to afford the schooling they are getting while participating in athletics. This means that the only responsible thing to do is to put the money toward school for them.


No Fair System Of Payment

The next big reason for not wanting to pay student-athletes is that coming up with a reliable payment structure would prove to be incredibly difficult. There is no precedent if D1 players would have to be compensated under minimum wage regulations, or if they should all receive the same kind of money. Much like in a company, there are different talent levels that deserve to be compensated accordingly. The big question would then be how would increased pay be determined? Players receiving honors such as All-American or All-Conference would need to be paid higher for having more talent.

The second part of this issue is this, do all athletes across various sports get paid the same as well? With a majority of every school's athletics money coming in through football and basketball, how would the other sports be compensated? Would football and basketball players make much more than athletes in fringe sports, such as gymnastics and golf? Or would all of them make the same base wage regardless of what they play and how good they are? There are too many concerns to balance in order to make the system run smoothly.


It Would Ruin College Sports

The last major reason that people argue against payment may seem like a very vague excuse, but it is a simple concept. If you turn on ESPN or any other sports news station, you will see stories of athletic drama on and off the field, much of it stemming from the financial side of pro sports. The argument is that if college athletes begin to make money, the drama that brings down pro sports will fester into their college counterparts.

Problems ranging from contract hold outs to player lockouts over specific universities paying low wages would suddenly begin to spread. Not to mention the threat of super teams taking over simply because they have more money to throw at kids than their competitors. A lot of sports fans turn to watching college sports because they feel that the games are more about the love of the sport and giving effort rather than just trying to make as much money as possible.


Any Solution?

It seems like there will never be an end to this debate, with good reason. The problem is that both sides have legitimate points to make, leading to a frustrating stalemate.

On one side, it is very true that players are routinely exploited by universities in order to enhance the profits they make off of their events. And it is also true that the players put in a lot of time that is going without compensation (especially if they do not finish a 4-year degree program).

On the other side, creating a fair payment system across the entire division is almost impossible. And athletes at this age are not mature enough to handle large amounts of money being given to them (professional athletes barely are). So then the annoying question remains, what happens now? The answer is simply to find some sort of middle ground. 

If players cannot be compensated or sign deals with company sponsors, then neither should the coaches or anyone else associated with the team.

If players cannot be compensated or sign deals with company sponsors, then neither should the coaches or anyone else associated with the team. If no payment structure for the players can be produced fairly, then perhaps consider compensating their families (the main reason many athletes want to be paid) so that the long hours they put in are still rewarded. And if college sports are ever going to be less about money and more about the love of the game, people should think twice before spending $3,000 on a game ticket.