Should College Athletes Be Paid?

Zion Williamson was the undisputed National Player of the Year this past season in college basketball. He is also the presumptive number one pick in next June’s NBA Draft. Yet he is in the news now not for his basketball talent but as part of the latest NCAA college hoops corruption scandal. To be perfectly clear, there is no evidence of any wrongdoing by Williamson. What’s come to light though is that a former Adidas consultant – Louis Martin Blazer – was open to paying Williamson to lure him away from college hoops’ “blue-blood” programs, and persuade him to attend Clemson. Working under the assumption that blue-blood programs would have their ways of attracting Williamson, Blazer suggested he and those he worked for could step in and pay to make the necessary difference.

In light of this scandal, which actually directly indicated numerous other players and programs, it seems it’s time once again to revisit the question: Should college athletes be paid?

The easy answer is yes, especially given how much money college sports generate. March Madness alone makes over $800 million on TV deals – roughly 75% of the association’s annual revenue. That money, according to CNBC’s calculations, is enough to fund the entire NCAA. And even as the NCAA soaks up this revenue, schools and coaches – particularly at big programs – also rake in enormous sums of money. Needless to say, it’s not exactly a fair deal for the athletes.

Fairness aside, there’s also an open question as to whether or not paying athletes would effectively narrow the playing field. Sticking with basketball, for instance, there’s an argument to be made that the blue-blood programs have advantages whether or not they’re doing anything illicit to bring in recruits.

Kentucky, for example, brings in a parade of five-star recruits year in and year out at least in part because players know they’ll be on national television, playing for a famous coach, and building their brands before they even reach the NBA. Duke tempts players in a similar manner, which is why the program has been able to continually reload despite losing players early to the NBA in the past several seasons. College basketball betting odds for next season aren’t out just yet, but there’s a good bet Duke will be the favorite despite losing Williamson and his star teammates RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish to the NBA – all because the school is welcoming a fresh batch of potential star 18-year-olds. And North Carolina is another example worth mentioning. For years, the school struggled to recruit up to its standard specifically because a scandal was looming over it. With that scandal now in the past however, the Carolina brand is pullin
g its weight; the school recently secured a commitment from Cole Anthony, its highest-rated high school player in years, as if nothing had ever changed.

It may be naive to think that players like these might be inclined to join other schools just because they’re allowed to be paid. That is to say, even if schools like Duke, Kentucky, and North Carolina are playing by the rules, and all schools are able to pay players the same amount, the draw of these brands is still the real value. In all likelihood, “blue-bloods” would retain their advantage.

The fairness argument is ultimately the more interesting one, because a level playing field is a more complex concept. Some actually contend that the NCAA is fair about how it compensates its athletes. For instance, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder has argued that athletes are already getting paid via scholarships, which are not available to just any students. Additionally, those few athletes who are poised to become multimillionaire professionals are now able to secure lucrative insurance policies to guard against injury. In fact, Williamson himself is believed to have had a (perfectly legal) policy like this in place with Duke – which may ultimately support any argument as to why he would have turned down money without necessarily taking any from the school he chose.

At the end of the day though, these makeshift methods of compensation seem inadequate next to NCAA revenues and the demands we place on modern college athletes. In everything but name, at least in the major sports, these are effectively professionals, and the right way to do things would still be to pay them as such. Otherwise, despite all the different angles to all the different arguments above, we’re likely to continue to hear hints of scandals win perpetuity.

Ultimately, it might be best for the NCAA to adopt the stance of one of its most prolific analysts, CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish. His take, for some time now, has basically been that if someone deserves to be paid but isn’t allowed to be paid, a black market of sorts will develop to get that someone paid. By simply making the payments legal, the NCAA would effectively eliminate the potential for more of these messy issues.

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