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."

NEXT: USC's Mandatory Title IX Quiz Teaches Students That Accuser's Feelings Always Valid

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  1. Look, there's no way the NCAA teams could survive if they had to pay their players. The only way the NFL can stay afloat is by being a tax-exempt non-profit and getting billions in support from host cities.

    1. The NFL league office is no longer a non-profit. Now they are just a regular corporation that will not report a profit (because the league office disburses all leftover revenue to the member teams).

    2. NFL teams make a ton of money. Their desire for tax money is not because they need it but because they can get it. Officials fear they will be voted out if they preside over a team departure.

      All the profit is at the team level which are separate taxable entities both from the NFL and from each other. They aren't and never have been nonprofit.

      1. With the notable exception of the Packers, which are a nonprofit.

  2. The Sanders campaign just found another bullet point. Minimum wage for college athletes.

  3. I think the players should be given a tip jar at all games, including an electronic one for broadcasts and clips.

  4. When a third party sticks a nose in a free transaction, nothing good comes of it.

    1. I don't understand nicks angle on this subject. He says it's not the state's core function to subsidize athletics... no shit! It's not the state's function to subsidize any college activity. Isn't gunning for athletics picking nits? I have the same reaction when someone bitches about having to pay taxes for Afro-trans-gender-intersectionality 101: when you allow the state to take your money, they will waste it!

      1. A pretty good chunk of Div 1 football money isn't state money at all. It varies a lot by school, but between broadcasting, merch, and alumni, many of the high-profile Div 1 football programs are pretty self-supporting.

        This is my general impression; so solly no linkee.

  5. "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."

    Every time I hear this argument I wonder why people don't consider free $40,000 educations to be payment.

    I'm ambivalent about this. You willingly choose to take part and many of them get free education out of the deal. For the best players, it's also a tryout for the NFL. I heard someone compare this to kids working in the cafeteria. He wondered why you can make money working in the school cafeteria but not on the football team, but that's a ridiculous comparison because I don't recall there being cafeteria scholarships that let you attend school for free.

    1. I think you touched on the main issue with "pay the players!" people. For much of CFB's history, the value of a degree was very high, while the value of pro league exposure and preparation was low. Over the years, steadily increasing subsidies for college have devalued a degree, all the while playing pro is more popular and lucrative. Add the fact that the majority of fball/bball athletes are black, and the urge to paint the most socially pampered segment of men engaging in voluntary commerce as cotton picking field hands for massa Coach is too tempting for many people.

    2. I agree it's thornier than most people assume. However, the flip side is not: Taxpayers shouldn't be subsidizing college or pro sports. That is a separate and pretty clear issue, I think.

      1. "Taxpayers shouldn't be subsidizing college or pro sports. That is a separate and pretty clear issue, I think."

        I doubt you'll get any argument on that, but revealed preference seems to get lost in the college pay issue.

      2. Nick, what is with you?

        First, the Trump piece.

        Second, Clemson "choked"?

      3. Taxpayers shouldn't be subsidizing college or pro sports.
        There, FIFY.

  6. Q) How many college athletes does it take to screw in a light bulb?

    A) One. But he gets three credits for it.

  7. No

  8. Let's be honest: A huge percentage of football players would never go near a college campus were it not for football scholarships. They have an opportunity they otherwise wouldn't have, and this opportunity only exists because of football.

    Maybe they should be paid, but I don't buy this argument that they're being taken advantage of and that we should pay them out of compassion.

    1. If they didn't think it was a fair deal they wouldn't accept the scholarship.

      1. If it were a "fair deal" the NCAA wouldn't have to ban cash payments.

  9. When you say Wichita State, spends $7.5 million of student fees on the basketball team, does that mean that $7.5 million goes directly to the team or that the student fees feed the athletic department budget which the team budget draws from but also maintains gym facilities that are available to the students? Because that changes the equation a bit.

    1. Charles Koch!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! and other boosters paid for a significant amount of the arena's renovation, and I believe they also pay Marshall's salary.

    2. Do the gym facilities cost $7.5M and can I opt out if I choose not to use them?

  10. 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

    Shocking omission:

    Texas vs USC in 2005.

    1. I thought FSU vs Auburn was good as well.

      1. He must have been be sleeping with a Buckeye - the potential payoff would have made that game more intense.

  11. They shouldn't pay them. Other than big time football and basketball, most of the programs lose money as is and it is picked up by student fees and or other sports.

    Where is the payment going to come from? Then you have Title IX issues. There are also 3 divisions at least of NCAA. Not everyone is Ohio State, Texas, Alabama in terms of revenue/profit. This would really hurt college athletics.

    Only big time football and basketball players have a legit beef.

    The best solution for me is to let the players...take cash handshakes, receive gifts, no show jobs, endorsement deals, autograph signings for money etc. They already do this to an extent (underground) and doesnt give a competitive advantage. It may actually help lesser schools attract elite recruits say if some big name booster wants to throw wads of cash at a potential player.

    1. Dead on. The NCAA holds up the Pony Express SMU teams as all that is wrong with the world. I consider it a fruitful exercise in outside-the-box thinking.

      If Papa John wants to blow $10m convincing the next Ben Simmons to attend Ball State, more power to him.

  12. Sports? Booorrrring.

    1. Exciting enough to comment, though!

  13. Can't speak for any other universities but at mine there are no athletic fees, the athletic department is profitable from tickets, merchandise and advertising transferring about $2 million a year into the general fund. If I'm not mistaken that money is being split between endowment and academic facilities expansion and renovation. Course that's the benefit of being in the SEC and getting the benefit of a bazillion bucks a year from ESPN via the SEC Network...

      1. SEC - northeastern style elitism, but with a charming southern accent.

      2. Go Gators! Also Ospreys, but nobody knows who they are.
        /sad trombone

        1. If one knows about USF and UCF, why shouldn't one know about the North Florida Ospreys?

  14. Nick, why do you put in an image that is too small to read, not make it a link to a larger version? I've seen y'all do this quite a few times.

  15. cfp nationall championship, not bcs title.

    sorry i'm that guy.

    1. *national

      1. Yes, even to yourself, it would appear. 🙂

  16. The "student-athlete" is a joke for the big-time sports.

    College players should have the right to make money off their fame they can. As it is, making a pittance off signed T-shirts is enough to get players and coaches run out of a program.

    If you're not famous enough, receiving the scholarship is enough of a benefit.

  17. Not paying college players? They get attention on a level (most) of them will never see past college, free college, and boatloads of college girls. Hard to put a price on that, but man is it some 'compensation.'

    The racket is the collusion between the big pro leagues (NBA and NFL) and NCAA on age restrictions for turning pro. The best college football and b-ball players can play pro; LeBron, Kobe, etc. proved the best players simply don't need college, and colleges are a waste of that kind of talent's limited window. Ditch age restrictions on the big leagues, and the college-paid athlete 'debate' will solve itself.

    1. exactly. The debate has taken the wrong tack from the beginning.

      Why is there so much sympathy for guys that get a shot at a free education at schools where most would love to say they got a degree from. As pointless as American schools are,. you can still get pretty good jobs by having a degree from Notre Dame. Even if you were a criminal there.

      The herd needs to stop feeling sorry for the people that are ultimately just part of the scam.
      You know damn well that if most of these savages were capable of understanding how they are being exploited, they would line up for it anyway; I would guess for the high volume of BJs alone.

    2. More true in basketball than football. Very few football players are physically big and strong enough to survive in the NFL out of high school. Also true to a lesser extent in hoops, LeBron and Kobe are exceptions rather than the rule.

      That said I agree if a kid wants to go pro whenever no one should be allowed to stop him or her.

      1. And with the exception of pro sports leagues being crony subsidized and seemingly corruptible, they are private enterprises and in a free market, should be allowed to make their own rules about player eligibility. Basically a similar principle to socialized losses and privatized gains.

        Bottom line - no one cares enough to fix it as long as the herd is entertained. Americans need to stop pointing out the myriad ways we are fucked. Just accept it and hope you are not collateral damage.

  18. How does Saban maintain his miserable douche-face even while holding the trophy?

  19. I thought the SouthPark episode where Cartman pretends to be a recruiter using a southern plantation owner accent was hilarious, and when I was younger I was right there.

    But then I started paying back my student loans. And I thought to myself: Fuck those whiny little bitches. They get all or most of their education, room, and board for free. That's payment enough, even at the small schools. The only thing that's kinda bullshit is not being able to trade on their (usually) temporary fame.

  20. They should get to share in their name/jersey sales and should be able to take endorsements.

    And, since we live in a shithole country where logic is not allowed:
    1.they should not get paid dollars for their play. They are moronic animals almost to the man and this opportunity is the only thing that they will ever be presented in their otherwise zombie lives. That is payment enough since most of them piss it away and do not even try to get an education - which is free. - they get plenty.
    2.the behavior of the average athlete should not justify an income even at the pro level given that these savages cannot even refrain from illegally hitting each other in the playoffs and causing their teams, fellow players, and team owners massive dollars lost.

    All of this shit falls in the who gives a shit category because the American sheep don't care about anything than blood in the colosseum. You can expose the corruption of cronyism to the herd all day long.

    They will still elect another cronyist as long as he is good at insulting the hose beast.

    1. You mad,bro?

      1. Just tired of reading about all of the problems with no solutions.

        Actually quite happy. Just cannot stand the sheep.
        What is going on is actually quite entertaining

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