One Argument for Paid College Athletics

By Eric Zanzucchi (@ericzanzucchi)

“And as long as they’re keeping score, there will always be people who try to do everything they can to put up more points than the other guy.”                                                                                                          – Brent Musburger from ESPN’s 30 for 30

Compensating student athletes is not a modern concept. Rules against paying players were established as early as the 1920’s and possibly even earlier. This form of cheating became so rampant that the NCAA eventually installed a rule in the mid-1980’s commonly called the “Death Penalty”. If a program were caught compensating players twice within a five year span the program would be eligible for termination. In 1987 a school was busted twice, SMU, and the program was suspended for two years. The program, once a national power, has never recovered from the damage done by that punishment.

Even with the aftermath of the first and only Death Penalty, schools have continued to pay players and get caught. It was confirmed that Cam Newton’s father openly had schools bid for his son’s services. Reggie Bush lost his Heisman Trophy and USC faced sanctions when it came to light that he had received benefits. College athletes have been paid and will continue to be paid.

What I struggle to understand is why can’t payments be formalized? And why do people find this idea so problematic?

Institutions would argue that they are paid with a free college education, but that benefit is the same to a swimmer or fencer who is not generating revenue for the institution. Good football players make their schools millions. Furthermore, the rules are set up in a way that student athletes can’t monetize their athletic abilities off the field. They can’t sell their video game likeness, can’t do autograph signings, or accept appearance fees. If Reggie Bush used USC as a platform to generate income from other sources, he wouldn’t need to be compensated by the school for college experience to be lucrative.

The NFL doesn’t make it easy on colleges either. They have a rule that players must be three years removed from high school to be eligible for the NFL Draft. With baseball, a player can be signed as young as 16. The NBA has a one year removed rule, but European leagues are a viable option if those athletes want to be paid immediately.

There are a lot of academic types who don’t like the idea of student athletes profiting from their abilities, but to me the issue is a lot like marijuana use to the federal government. If it’s going to happen anyways why don’t we embrace it and control it.