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Paying college athletes?

Unleash the boosters and allow athletes to market themselves

by James Leroy Wilson
April 8, 2014

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Paying college athletes?

Last night, the Connecticut Huskies (UConn) won their fourth NCAA Men's Basketball national championship in fifteen years.

It capped one of the most entertaining NCAA tournaments in recent memory. UConn was a #7 seed in their region, and their opponent, Kentucky, was a #8. It's rare for any team lower than #4 in their region to make it to the finals, and a #1 or #2 is typically its opponent.

In other words, this Tournament was filled with crazy upsets, not just in the first couple of rounds, but throughout. If you thought your bracket was "busted" after the first weekend, it turned out that everyone else's was, too. I had the same bracket filled out for both ESPN and the friendly neighborhood pool, abiding by Nate Silver's cautious "predictions" each time. With just one Final Four selection and no team in the Championship game, I still finished in the 77th percentile among 11 million ESPN entries, and eighth out of thirty locally. Thanks, Nate; I think I'll follow your formula next year, which will likely be less crazy.

All this attention to college sports often raises the question: should student-athletes be paid? Members of Northwestern's football team are trying to unionize, and this will usher a can of worms for the NCAA.

This was unthinkable not long ago. Today, however, the huge salaries that head coaches of major football and men's basketball teams receive has raised questions of equity. Shouldn't the athletes that the fans pay to see get a portion of the revenue?

On the other hand, the free education, training, room, and board isn't cheap. To take full advantage of the scholarship, and to earn a degree debt-free, is a great benefit to any young person. And there's the issue of just a couple of sports, if any, that actually raise sufficient revenue to fund the less-popular sports. Should athletes of the marginally-popular sports be paid the same as athletes of popular sports? Should different positions within the same sport get better pay than others?

Money is part of what college athletics is about. The question shouldn't be about how to remove it, but how best to manage it.

My two suggestions:

1. Don't let colleges pay athletes, but any student-athlete should be free to make any money however they can, including becoming an advertising spokesperson. And let them receive any gifts or benefits from boosters that are offered them.

2. NCAA enforcement should be limited to making sure the athletes are actually students, regularly attending and passing academically rigorous classes by a random but rigorous auditing process.

Will this likely mean football and/or basketball players make more money than baseball players? Or women's volleyball players making more money than field hockey players? Probably, but not necessarily; it depends on the school and the inclinations of its wealthy boosters.

Unionization will fix nothing. Letting the money flow will create a more honest and competitive athletic environment. Don't pay the athletes, but allow them to get paid.

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