What’s Lost In The Debate About Paying Student-Athletes

The idea that student-athletes should be paid is not an old one. It has floated around for quite some time now, with observers throwing varying opinions back and forth about how fair it would be and whether or not it may violate the integrity of collegiate athletics. One side of the spectrum focuses on the revenue generated by sports, mainly football programs, and the fact that the players who are responsible for it do not see a dime. The other, equally vocal, side notes that scholarships are important financial incentives for athletes, and paying players could create enormous conflicts of interest.

One thing I believe most would agree on is the NCAA’s poor reputation. When a governing body sees a one-half suspension as a fitting punishment for anything, it loses credibility instantly. That decision, coupled with other questionable rulings and petty by-laws, has diminished the NCAA in the eyes of college sports fans and student-athletes alike. Some would like to see players paid simply as a means of defeating the NCAA.

Last week, this debate resurfaced as the National Labor Relations Board regional director Peter Sung Ohr ruled that Northwestern football players, which had been suing Northwestern University, are indeed employees of the university. This is important in a symbolic sense; the appeals process will likely drag the actual case out across a few years. However, it will have an immediate impact because Northwestern football players will vote on April 25 to form a union, which will put strong pressure on the university to recognize their rights as employees.

Unionization is certainly a touchy subject on campus. On Saturday, the Wildcats’ head football coach Pat Fitzgerald told reporters that he had advised his players not to vote in favor of forming a union. Opinions between the players has been split, and it is not a foregone conclusion whatsoever that a union will be formed.

To get the perspective of a varsity athlete, I spoke to NYU Student Athlete Advisory Committee President Phil Wiesel, who is a senior on NYU’s varsity swim team. Wiesel, who puts in “20 plus” hours a week in the pool and weight room had an interesting perspective:

I think it [paying players] could create controversy. I think it could be a moral hazard issue because I think college athletics should be about your passion for the sport. You know, we’re in college for academics, we’re here to pursue our majors. I’m speaking from a Division III standpoint, not a Division I standpoint where the idea is to go pro and make money at a professional level. But if you look at the statistics from the NCAA, less than 1% of athletes go pro. At the end of the day most of us are doing it because we love the sport and because we want to excel in the classroom and just continue our passion. Certainly if you’re paying players it will create moral hazard.

Although NYU is far from being an athletic power (Go NYU Football!), the athletes at this school take unmistakable pride in what they do, however unrecognized it may be. We won’t be seeing our athletes unionize anytime soon, yet they are more qualified than anyone else at NYU to comment on this subject. The idea that student-athletes are playing because they are passionate and committed to their sport is often lost when the discussion of paying players arises. Usually the discussion centers upon money, money, money, and ignores the value of participating in college athletics itself.

The NCAA won’t be paying salaries to student-athletes anytime soon; perhaps the players may begin receiving stipends, which I wouldn’t categorize as too much to ask for, but even that seems far off. When you look at this issue, however, don’t discredit the importance of playing on a college team to the student-athlete’s college experience. There is inherent value that has been forgotten about.

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2 Comments

  • Chris DiNardo
    April 7, 2014

    Sorry but Division III athletes at NYU have no authority to speak on the educational vs. monetary purpose of their time playing sports at NYU…”I think college athletics should be about your passion for the sport”. Wonderful. I agree. But we have to realize that “student-athletes” (a term coined in the 1950′s in order for the NCAA to avoid paying workman’s compensation) at D1 powerhouses in profit sports (men’s basketball and football) overwhelmingly are not there for their degrees; they’re there to make their schools and athletic departments money. Especially, as the NLRB notes, Northwestern football players spend upwards of 50-60 hours a week on football-related activities. That’s a job, not a “love of the game”.

    They also do get stipends. However, the argument goes, rightfully, that these stipends don’t adequately cover the true cost of higher education, and undoubtedly don’t cover the true value of these athletes. The true enigma to me is that we once thought that amateur athletics should be tied to higher education. It’s all a scam. March Madness, college bowl games, they’re all just euphemisms for the modern formulation of a plantation.

  • Richard Swinger
    April 7, 2014

    The audacity that it takes for a Division III NYU swimmer to say that student-athletes don’t merit compensation is outright offensive. Not to mention the stupidity of the author of this article to even THINK that this level of athlete is a credible source of opinion on this issue.

    How cute that you put in 20-plus hours for a club-level sport that your university doesn’t profit from…you deserve to compete simply for the “passion of the sport.” However, try talking to the University of Kentucky basketball team about putting in 50 hours a week for a program that generates hundreds of millions of dollars within a multi-billion dollar athletic network. Those kids will have a slightly different opinion. They, along with countless other high-level college athletes, were brought to their schools to do one thing: play.

    Unfortunately, the only “moral hazard” is the one that involves not fairly-compensating players for a product generated by countless hours of hard work, and that produces billions of dollars in TV contracts, merchandise, and windfalls of donations to their universities.

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