Let's Pay Student Athletes the Same as Other Kids Who Work on Campus - Issue #25

It could be awesome, baby!

So, I have this wild idea. 

I don’t want to bury the lede, so I’m just going to lay it out right here at the top:  Let’s pay student athletes just like other student employees. 

March Madness is here, which means it’s time for ill-informed office pools and our annual, cursory conversation about whether NCAA athletes ought to be paid. After all, the tournament is a major, multimillion-dollar affair, some of the athletes are already superstars, and their sports programs are major revenue-generators for the school. 

Considering the fierce competition between schools, many of them would gladly pony up cash payment to attract top prospects. But opponents fear doing so would open up a Pandora’s box, and paying student athletes remains banned by the NCAA. 

It’s been seven years since the story that really first drew my attention to the issue; it was the one that included UConn star Shabbazz Napier’s famous “hungry nights” quote. 

I think it’s worth including here because it’s rare to find a take that’s so clear and succinct.  

“‘I don’t feel student-athletes should get hundreds of thousands of dollars, but like I said, there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I’m starving,’ Napier said to reporters. When the senior was asked if he felt like an employee, the Huskies point guard said, ‘I just feel like a student-athlete, and sometimes, like I said, there’s hungry nights and I’m not able to eat and I still got to play up to my capabilities. …When you see your jersey getting sold — it may not have your last name on it — but when you see your jersey getting sold and things like that, you feel like you want something in return.’”

The debate about paying student athletes was going on long before Napier spoke up, but the way he put it in such stark, relatable terms – yeah, sometimes I play in front of thousands of paying fans and still go to bed hungry – really seemed to stir people to empathize in a new way. 

And yet, here we sit, seven years later, and it doesn’t seem like we’ve made much progress on the issue at all. 

The two sides are pretty well-established, and pretty well-dug in.

I know my idea won’t satisfy either one. In the fashion of any great compromise, my idea makes no one happy, but everyone better off. 

So here it is: Let’s have a standardized rate of pay across the NCAA for all student athletes, comparable to that of any other campus employment. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, $13/hour for all athletic activities (practice, games, travel, mandatory team meetings, training, etc.) or perhaps a $300/week stipend. 

Bruhns, I know what you’re thinking: This is the best idea I’ve ever heard! I’m disappointed I didn’t think of it myself, but I’m excited to tell my friends about it and do what I can to advocate for it! 

I appreciate that. However, difficult as it may be to envision, you might encounter questions, or even opposition to this idea out there in the world. Let me attempt to address some frequently asked questions from both sides of the debate, starting with the most annoying. 

Why should kids get paid for doing something they enjoy? Why shouldn’t they? 

I got paid to do things I enjoyed when I was a student. 

I actually held the second-highest paying student job on campus: Editor of the Student Newspaper. We spent late nights debating the latest opinion submissions, responding to hate mail, and scrambling to get the week’s issue to the presses (yes we really printed it back then!). It was a blast. 

Some less fun on-campus jobs that I held during my college career included wiping down tables in the dining hall, phoning alumni to solicit donations (I only lasted one week at this), cleaning classrooms, and delivering mail, although I really had no complaints about the last two (if I could wear my headphones, I was good). 

My favorite gig of all though was something called “Bleacher Boy.” Despite how it sounds, this was one of the most coveted jobs on campus. It entailed setting up bleachers before home basketball games. It was a difficult process, involving a delicate balance of hydraulics and brute force, as these special lifts had to be employed to drag these multi-ton seating structures away from the walls. You had to have two separate crews pulling the two hydraulic lifts at just the exact same pace or else they’d get stuck, and you’d have to reset and start again. And so the job paid $20/game on the assumption that it would take about an hour and a half, but with the right crew, passing down the technique from one to the next, it could be done in less than half that time, and you’d still get the full amount. 

Today, like an all-grown-up Bleacher Boy, I continue to get paid to do work that I enjoy, and I think that ought to be the ambition of any college grad, athlete or not. 

If you don’t think work should be enjoyable, it’s probably because you have a shitty job, and maybe you should think about making a life change. 

Aren’t college athletes already compensated handsomely with room, board, and scholarships? Yes, but so are a lot of other students. Those students still have the opportunity to work a variety of part-time jobs because they are not required to attend mandatory workouts, practices, or team activities, or travel around often-large regions of the country to compete with other schools. 

To have a modest payment plan in place, on top of an athletic scholarship, room, and board would be comparable to a work-study scholarship program. It acknowledges that players’ make a meaningful contribution to the campus economy, just like other student employees. 

Student athletes bring in money through ticket sales, food, and merchandise, and they make the school more attractive to prospective students, just the way a clean, well-staffed dining hall, freshly cleaned and painted dorm rooms, or tutoring programs might. 

Also, you can’t eat your room or your scholarship. You can eat your board, apparently, but not when you’re off campus. It seems reasonable that after practice or a game or on a random late night, college athletes should have at least a little pocket money to go out to eat or see a movie with friends. 

Wouldn’t implementing pay for NCAA athletes be a logistical nightmare? And wouldn’t paying recruits make it impossible for all but the top programs to compete?

Here’s another spot where I think my idea shines. By implementing a standardized system of pay that stretches across the entire NCAA, schools would be spared the legwork of figuring out the details for themselves.  

Paying athletes has long been forbidden by the NCAA. And hence, there have been any number of scandals over the years involving high profile-programs slipping illicit payments to young star athletes and their families. 

Surely, a standard pay rate would make it less tempting for athletes to accept illicit payments. It would make it less tempting for schools to give them, and even more damning if they were caught still doing so. 

This idea could actually prevent recruitment being reduced to a bidding war between a handful of major programs and would stay true to the “spirit of amateurism” that the NCAA (disingenuously, many believe) claims to champion. 

Instead, schools could continue to compete for top prospects based on the strength of their respective programs, coaches, history, facilities, location, and so on. 

Won’t this approach leave certain student athletes grossly underpaid compared to others? Well, yes and no. If you believe in equal pay for equal work, perhaps the amount of revenue a particular student’s sport generates shouldn’t be a factor. 

Just like McDonald’s employees get paid roughly the same amount as Arby’s workers, even though McDonald’s is the far more successful fast food chain, so, football or basketball players don’t really work harder than soccer or volleyball or track and field players. 

And so we eliminate the issues of disparity between the sports. Women and men, football, lacrosse, baseball, softball, and field hockey players would be paid the exact same amount. 

What if players don’t think that’s fair? When it comes to basketball, at least, players do have another option: Europe. A kid can go straight from high school to playing professionally in Europe for a competitive, even lucrative, salary. They would hopefully have lots of support from their team’s staff, access to state-of-the-art training facilities, likely much healthier diets, and could even arguably be better served by taking some online courses in more practical subjects than the typical first-year slate offered by most universities. 

With the top athletes only spending a year on campus, they’re lucky to come out with one course under their belt in subjects like Composition, Western Philosophy, Introductory Calculus, and an elective like Badminton or Swimming Pool Management; not exactly a prime prospect for the world of business and commerce should their sports career fizzle early. 

Baseball and soccer players can also head directly to the pros, and I’m certainly not opposed to young athletes exploring these alternate routes. Why not wait and do college education afterward? Then you could take advantage of your full athletic prime, make the money you need to get the education you actually want, and pursue it during your intellectual prime? I don’t think the NCAA should get to exploit talented kids for a year or two as a de facto cost of entry into professional leagues. 

What about programs that literally cannot afford to pay their athletes/would not be economically viable? 

Not a problem. With a standardized system of pay, programs could simply opt in or opt out. 

Those that just could not survive from a budget standpoint if they were to pay their players, would have to cut that program or, alternatively, designate the sport as a voluntary activity. 

The better student athletes would obviously go to the elite programs (where they’re likely headed anyway), and those students who want to play a ‘nonprofit’ sport would still have that option. But at least they would understand up front what they were signing up for. And, again, programs could be spared a bidding war, and compete on their relative merits. 

Okay, Bruhns, that’s where we’ll leave it for now. I know some of you readers work at colleges and universities. And I know not all of you are passionate about sports. But if you could start planting this idea with your people, I’d really appreciate it. 

Even as I write this I see interesting articles and TV segments popping up on this issue. 

Leave me other questions, comments, and concerns in the discussion space below. And let’s get this thing cookin’.

Are you pumped? I know I am.