Tuesday, April 08, 2014

College athletes: Worth it

It’s time to pay college athletes.

Here’s what I mean by that — athletes who train several hours a day and represent their school, and who are often hamstrung with regards to other employment, should be compensated reasonably to reflect that.

I realize this is an incredibly complex issue, one with no easy answers, and no clear heroes or villains. I couldn’t even point to a specific plan myself. But I do know that the current system, in its attempts to thwart corruption, actively invites it.

College athletics is a unique creature. In a nation that defines itself by its capitalist work ethic, we not only expect athletes to compete for free, but we also lionize that free labor. Unpaid internships are a hot-button issue, but athletes are usually excluded from that conversation. They shouldn’t be, no matter how much love for the game they have.

I’m all about the love of the game. But that love doesn’t exempt people from needing to eat and otherwise meet their basic needs. That’s what needs to be addressed.

One obstacle I’m seeing is the image most people have of a college athlete as the big, dumb, spoiled jock who has someone else ghostwriting his transcript while he bides his time until the pros come calling. That is a tiny, albeit amplified, fraction of the student-athlete population.

Most college athletes are sincere students who view athletics as an opportunity to defray the costs of a degree that they intend to use to pursue a nonathletic career. Many of them are on partial scholarships for sports that aren’t cash cows, and have to go through red tape to make up the difference with another job (and have multiple aspects of their lives scrutinized regardless). Sometimes the opportunity isn’t feasible, and they have to drop out of sports, and/or school, altogether. That hardly seems like the end goal of limiting monetary influence. There has to be a way to help those people without encouraging the worst excesses that typically come to mind.

College athletics doesn’t need to become the pros; in fact, it shouldn’t. But the stigma against compensation needs to end. Players already get scholarships, per diems and other approved perks such as officially sanctioned apparel, so it’s wrong to say amateurism exists in its pure form. Anyway, no one calls for amateurism in other college pursuits, such as journalism. In fact, the student newspaper was a paying gig. I had it.

I was also a scholarship athlete (an equipment manager, but bureaucratically it wasn’t much different). I consider that the luckiest break of my life — a terrific gig working with great people that involved lots of exercise and travel, that paid for my education. It was also nearly full time, and harder work than any professional, salaried job I’ve had since. (It’s also the source of my recurring back injury.) What people don’t often realize is that college sports are year-round gigs that require daily commitment when classes are in session (and sometimes when they aren’t). It’s a lot of work that typically averages out to sub-training wages, meaning most participants are dependent on their support systems — or whatever else tiptoes their way.

So how would you go about paying student-athletes? I don’t know necessarily; it’s a giant labyrinth that pretty much varies with the individual. Minimum wage isn’t much, but it would be a step up for most. Pay them the difference as a stipend, perhaps. Something to where they can meet basic expenses. Would this curtail the amount of openings available? Some might argue that. I don’t know. But again, it’s a conversation worth having. (And I hope it goes without saying that student-athletes should put in the practice time, perform at their best and keep up their grades always. It's their commitment as well.)

Compensating college athletes ties into my oft-stated belief that work needs to pay, not just to support the worker, but also to give them the incentive to work and to be invested in that work. Such an investment benefits all of us. Corruption is worth stopping, but so are the conditions that foster it in the first place.


KBliss said...

I wasn't an athlete in school, but I do have some thoughts to offer on this.

1. College athletes a lot of times have a scholarship (like you mentioned), even if it is meager and not enough to pay for living expenses. At some universities, my Alma Mater included, athletes get textbooks for free, even through it is by a rental system of sorts.That is a lot more than some get. So, really they are getting something big, even though it doesn't seem like it at the time. They are getting a lot more help for their efforts than many do.

2.Yes, being an athlete is physically hard work and mentally too in a lot of cases. But, that doesn't mean other degrees aren't hard as well. I have friends who were music majors, who were literally in class from 8 a.m. - 7 p.m., everyday with class and mandatory band practices etc.Arguing that college athletes should get paid is like arguing that any hard extra curricular should be paid. By extension, band, choir, art and any other program of the like that is a choice for that student to participate in. You may dislike the fact that I compare band etc. to sports, but to those kids, they are just as devoted and spending dawn til dusk on a craft is just as tiring, though sometimes mentally vs physically. These kids, often times, cannot also hold a job due to their rigorous schedule.

So by saying athletes should get paid, but not saying that all that put in an extensive effort into a school program that may or may not grow their career, but does help grow school funding, is setting a double standard. It says athletes are better than others, and that's just not okay in my book.

Yes there are scholarships out there for band kids, art kids etc., but not half as many or for as much money in most cases.

Ian McGibboney said...

But all of those groups CAN take side work in their pursuits. Time is the primary concern, whereas athletes are governed by so much more.

In fact, I'd argue that the rules they're under, combined with the money they make for the schools, makes them not better, but actually more expendable than other groups.

But this isn't an athlete vs. others battle — if it was the same situation for those groups, I'd feel the same way. As it is, I'd like to see more musicians, etc., get more as well when they can.