Paying the Basketball Players

In a debate that seems to come up every March, many are spouting off about problems with the system surrounding college basketball. Ralph Nader thinks it’s time to eliminate athletic scholarships. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says colleges participating in the NCAA Division I should make sure to graduate at least half of their basketball players on time.

These are interesting ideas, though it’s unlikely schools will institute such practices anytime soon. ESPN/ABC studio analyst Jalen Rose, however, proposes a much more novel idea. Just pay the damn basketball players. As he writes a piece in the Huffington Post:

I am strong advocate of college players being paid to play sports. Each student-athlete should be paid a stipend of $2,000 per semester. Universities, coaches, apparel companies and everyone in between financially benefits from the success of these student-athletes except for the player themselves. This is a small investment for universities that see millions of dollars in revenue each semester and treat these student athletes as indentured servants. The elephant in the room is the current NCAA contracts for basketball and football which exceed $20 billion annually!

Rose’s point is that “the universities view athletics as a business and an opportunity to grow their brand and make money.” The people primarily responsible for putting this into action, the athletes, should therefore be compensated for their work.

Oh, the scandal! “Who is more valuable to society, a Nobel Laureate professor or a basketball coach?” asked one commentator. “The actual value of the experience to any college athlete should be the enduring opportunity provided by the classroom, not the fleeting glory of the stadium.” What about the education?

Well, actually it’s not even worth worrying about the sacred education. Leaving aside the ethical problems with this proposal, the greater problem is that it’s based on a myth.

It does sort of make sense to argue that college athletes should get some share of the profit on athletics that they generate. The trouble is that college athletics don’t generate a profit most places.

According to a June report by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, colleges mostly use sports in a rather ambiguous effort to improve their overall institutional prestige; sports mostly lose money. Sports don’t even pay for themselves; colleges mostly fund them by leveling fees on students or getting a their direct subsidy from the university.

So there’s no need to worry about whether or not it’s “right” to pay college athletes. There’s not really any profit available to do that.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer