Yes, College Athletes Should Be Paid, But Not by Students & Taxpayers

If you get angry over subsidies for pro sports teams, don't look at your alma mater's financials.


Writing in The Washington Post, sports agent Donald H. Yee makes the case that college athletes, especially black athletes who create much of the value for the NCAA, should be compensated for their work. I agree totally, but Yee leaves out all the college students and taxpayers who are getting fleeced by public universities that spend millions of dollars on sports programs at supposed institutions of higher learning. From Yee's piece:

There's so much money up for grabs that individual schools and conferences have created their own sports TV channels. Fans can watch the Pac-12 Network, the Big Ten Network — even the Longhorn Network, devoted to the University of Texas (which is reportedly guaranteed an average of $15 million per year from ESPN, even as the cable-sports behemoth loses money on the enterprise). And there's millions more from ticket sales and stadium and facility naming rights.

This enormous flow of cash is carefully kept away from football and basketball players, but coaches, administrators and other staff members get to bathe in it, even though many big-time athletic departments still lose money overall. Larry Scott, commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference, reportedly makes more than $3.5 million a year. Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, makes more than $1 million. According to USA Today, nine athletic directors make more than $1 million each, and nearly 50 make more than $500,000. Football and basketball coaches too numerous to count make well into seven figures — including many still getting paid millions after they've been fired. Even bowl-game directors can make nearly $1 million , for administering a single game. These are figures for those at the top of the pyramid: Many schools pay assistant coaches hundreds of thousands of dollars; Louisiana State University's football team just hired a defensive coordinator for $1.3 million per year.

Whole thing here.

As an agent, Yee seems not to care about the other folks getting screwed by this arrangement. They include taxpayers and students who end up kicking in huge amounts of money involuntarily to maintain such big payouts for activities that have absolutely nothing to do with education.

Alabama, which just won the BCS title last night in probably the most-intense championship game since Ohio State beat University of Miami in 2003, pockets $6 million a year from students in the form of subsidies. Clemson, which choked last night, skims $4.3 million.

Don't kid yourself that high-profile sports teams "pay for themselves" by increasing the quality and quantity of applications or boost the amount of alumni giving. Even the NCAA, which has every reason to lie about those things as much as it does about schools' inability to pay its student-athletes, says there is no "Flutie effect" or observable increase in general-fund donations. In fact, research shows that donations to athletic departments "cannibalize" funds for academic programs. Unless you think it's a core function of the state to pay for varsity sports at the college level, there's no case to be made.

As a big fan of college sports, I report all of this with some sadness. And as the graduate of three public universities with mostly incredibly shitty sports teams, I say report all of this with some anger. 

There's just no good goddamn reason for letting Wichita State suck $7.5 million a year directly from students' pockets in the form of fees to pay for its occasionally good men's basketball team. Michigan State, a big-time football and basketball school (those are the only two sports that actually generate significant revenue), spends $3.6 million a year of student fees on its teams. My undergraduate college, Rutgers, subsidizes 47 percent of its embarrassing Division I teams out of student fees and general funds, much of which comes from Garden State taxpayers. It's not uncommon for schools in the MAC conference, home to University of Buffalo (one of my grad schools) to subsidize two-thirds or more of the costs of their lackluster football and basketball squads.

USA Today maintains a database of publicly funded schools and the amount of money they force taxpayers and students to kick in for the privilege of watching generally awful teams get their asses kicked on a regular basis (private universities engage in the same practice but don't have to share data with the public). According to USA Today, just seven public schools have athletic departments that pay for themselves (they are Texas, Ohio State, Oklahoma, LSU, Penn State, Nebraska, and Purdue).

It's wrong that taxpayers are forced to subsidize professional sports teams via stadium deals and the like. It's equally wrong that taxpayers and students see their bills jacked up to fund college sports teams, no matter how enjoyable the spectacle. I suspect that if and when the actual payouts to athletic departments for sports programs become better known, this worm will turn.

The Donald H. Yees of the world are thus only half-right: Yes, college athletes should get paid. But taxpayer-funded schools shouldn't do the paying. If anything, they should be making money by licensing their names and alumni bases to semi-pro or minor-league football and basketball leagues.

Last fall, Reason TV calculated how much a college football player is worth. The back-of-the-envelope figure? About $110,000 a season. Take a look:

Related: How Football Fleeces Taxpayers—Gregg Easterbrook on "The King of Sports."