Amateurism in College Sports: the “Pay for Play” Debate


The landscape of college sports is changing. The discussions have changed. The ideas have changed. The players have changed. The games have changed. College sports have become a commodity. The supply must meet the demand…and the demand is high. Turn on your television at any point during the week and it is a sure bet that a college game can be found, especially in November, when football and basketball seasons overlap. All that TV exposure means one thing: lots and lots of money.

Networks want to carry college athletics because they know people are going to watch. Take March Madness for example; the men’s basketball tournament is the single most important part of the year in college hoops, but networks don’t get to air those games for free, they pay a large sum to the NCAA for rights to them.

In fact, according to Fox Business, Turner Broadcasting joined CBS in a deal last year with the NCAA to televise all of the March Madness games through 2025. The price? Nearly $11 billion. And that is just a part of it. reports that the tournament is second only to the Super Bowl in terms of ad sales and that airing a thirty-second commercial during one of the later rounds can cost as much as $1.2 million.

Broadcasting is just one venue that the NCAA uses to build revenue by exploiting its college athletes. Money is made through all of it licensees, such as the Collegiate Licensing Company, the top-tier of several licensing companies that handles NCAA schools. According to the CLC webpage, they alone “represent nearly 200 of the nation’s top colleges, universities, bowl games, athletic conferences, the Heisman Trophy, and the NCAA.” So sales from tickets, memorabilia, apparel, DVDs, video games, and more find their way back home to the NCAA. Needless to say, this is a big business.

But a 2011 article on highlights the newly-appointed NCAA president, Mark Emmert, and his desire to change the perspective that the association is rolling in a “tsunami of cash.” He says, “There’s confusion about that because the numbers look big and people see a football stadium with 105,000 people at Michigan or somewhere and do the math in their head and say, ‘Well, this is all about money.’ We hear that all the time, ‘All they care about is money. They shape everything around money.’” Emmert states that a large part of revenue brought in goes back into all the programs that student-athletes participate in, such as volleyball, gymnastics and crew, not just basketball and football. “I could make the argument right now there’s not enough money in college athletics,” says Emmert.

Either way, the NCAA lines its pockets on the backs of its student-athletes. What do the students get in return? Sure, some of them get scholarships to make college expenses manageable—“some” being the operative word. The problem here is that these scholarships are only intended to meet the financial needs of a college tuition, but a study by Ithaca College and the National College Players Association reported that these scholarships still fall around $3,000 short of the average annual cost of attendance. Everyday expenditures haven’t even entered the equation at this point.

John Bland, head football coach at University of the Cumberlands said,

 “Extra expenses are difficult to pay for and the NCAA restricts the amount of money a kid can make with a part-time job to pay for those. Also, the time that being a student-athlete takes up doesn’t allow a player to have a job during the school year, but only in the summer.”

And yeah, it’s true that “some” of these kids go on to professional careers in sports, which can yield a lot of money. But according to Scott Soshnick of Bloomberg, on average, less than two percent of college athletes make it to the pros. That is, unless you play baseball, in which case the player would have almost a 12 percent shot. Still, not a very good statistic.

Student-athletes perform something of a high-wire act when it comes to staying away from NCAA infractions. New York Times writer, Joe Nocera, broke it down a little more in an article he wrote on the topic, saying, “Any student-athlete who accepts an unapproved, free hamburger from a coach, or even a fan, is in violation of NCAA rules.” Some of these kids have to be careful who gives them a ride around town, or even campus. In 2010, University of Southern California running back, Dillon Baxter, was suspended for a game because he received a ride across campus on a golf cart. The driver may have been an agent for the National Football Players Association, but more so, he was a former USC student who had ties to Baxter before he became an agent. Fair or not, any sort of good or service or “extra” anything that a player receives without pre-approval could be considered a bribe, or payment, in the eyes of the almighty NCAA.

So how do players get compensated for all that they do to help the NCAA? If they don’t fit into one of the two categories of student-athletes listed above, then close to nothing. With that being said, there is another glaring question waiting to be answered: why not pay college athletes?

The “pay for play” debate has been around for years, but has been picking up more and more steam as of late. And there is no proverbial “line drawn in the sand” when it comes to who is on what side. Instead, there is a 12-foot wall sporting concertina wire at its peak. Simply put: there is no in-between.

A big belief of those who oppose is that paying players destroys the concept of amateurism, which seems to be a valid argument. If student-athletes are being paid, then it does feel as if the barriers between college athletics and professional sports have been removed. Without looking at the obvious difference in pay grade, the two almost become one and the same. And isn’t the difference in the two part of what makes college sports so great? The pageantry that is involved. The heart. The competition. The fact that these kids are playing their sport for the pure reason that they love it. Yeah, a lot of them aspire to make it to the next level, but that is another thing that makes it so great because each kid wants to stand out and be better than the next one. It could be argued that if college players are paid that they may rest on their laurels a little too much. After all, they would be getting paid to do what they love. In a sense, they’ve already made it, right?

The money the NCAA rakes in because of these students is just half of the equation. Think about all the money made in and around towns that are home to some of these bigger programs, especially smaller cities like Lexington, Ky. or Knoxville, Tenn. Wildcats basketball and Volunteer football outrageously boost their local economies, and in many instances, its locale’s wallets.

Co-creator and editor at, Scott Anderson, said,

“Look at area businesses, heck, look at Nation of Blue; we all make money off of them. Restaurants are packed every time they play and make beaucoups of money. There’s Nerlens Noel t-shirts, there were Anthony Davis t-shirts and the kids can’t ever make a dime. They don’t receive any compensation for that. I think they definitely deserve something because they are a big part of the community and a big part of the revenue of all these local businesses.”

If the decision were made to start paying these student-athletes, how would the money be divvied out? Well, that’s another debate. One of the more popular ideas has been to bulk up an athlete’s scholarship by using stipends. Joe Nocero reported that the NCAA and its board of directors actually approved giving these kids $2,000 stipends in late 2010, but within months had put in an “override request” to stop the payments and eventually suspended the payments altogether due to protesting athletic directors and conference commissioners, who claimed that they couldn’t afford it.

There is another force currently at work that could drastically change this discussion completely: a class action lawsuit against the NCAA. Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player, filed the suit in 2009 stating that the NCAA and several of its licensees violated antitrust laws through several of its commercial ventures that made money off of his and other Division-I players’ likenesses.

The suit originally was limited only to former D-I athletes, but according to Michael McCann of, in late August, O’Bannon decided to expand it to include all current D-I basketball and football players, which is awaiting a judge’s permission. McCann writes, “O’Bannon does not ask that current players be paid while in college. Instead, he wants a temporary trust set up for monies generated by the licensing and sale of their names, images and likenesses. Players could access those trusts at the completion of their collegiate careers.”

A plan like this could be the solution that supporters of “pay for play” could be looking for. It takes into account a player’s school, sport, position, playing time, and time enrolled in school and calculates the amount of money that player should earn based on the amount of money brought in by the school, conference and NCAA during that time. McCann’s article continued with, “Under an economic formula proposed by O’Bannon, players would receive half of the NCAA’s broadcasting revenue and one-third of video game revenue, with the remainder of revenue staying with the NCAA, conferences and colleges.”

It’s true that student-athletes already have advantages that regular, everyday students don’t enjoy, but it’s also true that, aside from the cost of tuition, schools aren’t making any money off those students attending purely for academics. And when it comes down to it, a kid attending a college for sports is a different kind of decision.

Scott Anderson said,

“I know some people argue that the scholarship is what they’re getting and they’re getting an education. But if you look at it, and the University of Kentucky is a very good example, those kids are usually only there for one or two years at the most. I mean, people want to say they’re student-athletes, and yeah, they have to have grades to play, but if you look at it they’re going there to play basketball.”

Much like politically-charged social issues such as abortion or gay marriage, there will probably never be any middle ground for this debate, but at some point, one way or the other, there will be a resolution.