The traditional orgy of college football games that occurs every Thanksgiving has recently shared the stage with a new tradition: decrying the “unpaid” status of the athletes who play in those games. With increasing frequency and urgency, critics contend that the millions of dollars that colleges and universities are receiving as a result of big-time sports come with the moral cost of exploiting young men.
In many ways, this description is sadly accurate. The players are now encouraged to become ever larger, with offensive lines averaging over 300 pounds per player, no matter how unhealthy it is for young bodies and hearts to try to carry that unneeded weight. Injuries, which have always been a serious problem, seem to have become even worse than ever before. Twenty-year-old men are suffering career-ending injuries, and like their heroes in the National Football League, many of them are also facing futures with debilitating brain damage from repeated concussive hits to the head.
There is much that should be done, both in terms of better protecting players, and providing adequate health care and disability insurance coverage to those unfortunate young men who give their all and are never heard from again. Seeing the eye-popping size of television contracts to broadcast college football games, many people understandably wonder why the players are not sharing in the bounty.
The problem is that the standard story is based on a gross distortion of reality. College football players do receive high compensation, and they would probably do worse under a wage-paying system. The reason that people often dismiss the idea that players are paid is that the payment comes in the form of athletic scholarships. Attending college for free, on a “full ride,” is the perk that universities use to pay players.
The cynical view is that this payment is not real, with players being deprived of the education that schools pretend to offer them. Although there is some limited truth to that charge, however, the overall reality is different, and much more nuanced.
In addition, however, there is a distinct whiff of anti-intellectualism in the claim that free tuition and fees, as well as free room and board at an institution of higher learning, are somehow no big deal. If people really believe in the value of higher education, as everyone at least pretends that they do, then they should not be so quick to spout the idea that athletes’ free rides are trivial.
The Distorted Understanding of College Football’s Compensation System
To be clear, we are not merely talking here about a few yahoos who do not care about higher education, or who are not very bright themselves. The advocates of paying players in “real money” are often otherwise intelligent and accomplished men.
For example, Jay Bilas, a former basketball player in Duke University’s elite basketball program, regularly speaks about college athletics by saying that the players are paid “exactly zero.” (He also claims that there are no other areas of American life in which compensation is suppressed below free-market levels, even though professional basketball has a “rookie salary cap” that does just that.) In his passion and zeal, Bilas willfully distorts the reality of college athletics.
The ESPN networks employ many analysts who are known for their enlightened views. Probably the best of them all is Bob Ley, a sports journalist who hosts the investigative program “Outside the Lines,” which provides in-depth analysis of serious problems facing athletics in America. Even Ley, however, could not stop himself from offering a notably cynical comment in a program over Thanksgiving weekend, saying that everyone in college sports is getting paid—except, of course, the players themselves! The sarcasm was thick in his voice.
Even the editorial board of The New York Times recently fell into this trap, claiming that under National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules, “student athletes may not receive compensation.”
The editors of The Times, Ley, Bilas, and others must surely understand that compensation can be paid in kind, and not just in cash. That these critics repeatedly make this mistake, therefore, calls out for an explanation.
Perhaps their claim is that the amount of money involved here is too paltry to matter. Even if it is not literally zero, maybe that is merely shorthand for “not worth mentioning.” If that were the explanation, however, then those critics have a rather different definition than most people of what counts as a lot of money.
How much in cash-equivalent compensation are we talking about? The top competitive division of the NCAA allows universities to offer up to 85 full-ride football scholarships at any time. The Ohio State University, whose football team is currently ranked second in the nation, lists its in-state tuition and fees, plus room and board, as totaling $20,810 this year. Out-of-state students pay $36,526. Duke University, where Mr. Bilas played (and received both a Bachelor’s degree and a J.D.), lists its total costs (not including books and personal expenses) at $57,824.
Even without taking into account academic inflation during a student’s career, therefore, the out-of-pocket cost of receiving what scholarship-holding athletes receive ranges from over $80,000 to more than $230,000. How many American families would view that as small potatoes? With states spending 23% less per student in 2013 than in 2008, moreover, the families of non-athletes are bearing an ever-larger share of the burden of supporting “public” universities.
Moreover, the value of what the players are receiving can be measured not only in terms of how much they would otherwise have to pay, but also in how much their lifetime earnings are increased by going to college. And we know that, even (or especially) in these difficult times for recent graduates, the long-term payoff for receiving a bachelor’s degree is enormous. One authoritative estimate indicates that the lifetime difference between having a high school diploma and having a bachelor’s degree is $500,000, a rate of return on the investment in college of more than 15% per year, compounded over a lifetime.
If a student can attend college for free, of course, then the rate of return is infinite. As a starting point, therefore, we can say that athletes who graduate from their universities put themselves in line to receive a half-million dollars over the remainder of their working lives, on average, without paying a dime in tuition.
Are College Athletes Allowed to Graduate, and With Real Degrees?
But surely we must take into account the reality that college football players often do not graduate, and are sometimes not asked to do college-level work. In a Verdict column I wrote early last year, I accepted uncritically the idea that colleges fail to educate their athletes, by forcing them to divert energy from studying to, instead, practicing and playing football. At best, this is a gross generalization, and it hides the benefits of even an uncompleted college degree.
How many football players actually graduate? The NCAA claims that athletes graduate at higher rates than the student body as a whole, but some researchers question this claim. Using one of several measures of graduation rates, one skeptical study found that college football players had a 68.6% graduation rate (not the 82% rate that the NCAA touts), which is very close to the rate for non-athletes judged under the same measure.
Even if the rate among football players is lower than other students, therefore, no one can claim that the rate is anything like zero. At least two-thirds of football players graduate within six years, and they do so without laying out any money.
What about those who attend college without earning a Bachelor’s degree? Recent research indicates that people who drop out of college still earn, over their lifetimes, an average of $100,000 total ($8,000 per year) more than those who never attend college at all. That is a rate of return of about 8% annually—but again, scholarship athletes receive this bonus without putting down any of their own money.
How many people are in this dropout category? The surprising fact is that a lot of people in this country never finish college, with only 58% of people who started college in 2004 having graduated by 2010 (using a slightly different measure of graduation rates from the study noted above). For most people, dropping out is a financial necessity, which is exactly the grim decision that college football players are spared by receiving full rides.
Perhaps, however, college football players are receiving an inferior educational product from their institutions. Certainly, there are academic scandals centering on college athletes occurring with depressing frequency, and there is reason to be concerned that players are pushed into less demanding majors. The efforts to eliminate such scandalous behavior should surely continue, but paying college athletes will certainly do nothing to improve that situation—and it is, if anything, likely to allow people to satisfy themselves with the idea that we no longer need to worry about educating the wage laborers who are toiling on the practice fields.
There is, however, no denying that having gone to college, especially if it resulted in receiving an actual degree, has value—not only economic value, but value in shaping a citizen and a human being. For many jobs, a college degree is the threshold requirement, and former football players are thus able to apply for jobs that they never would have been able even to consider otherwise. They also are often known to in-state employers, who are eager to hire former local stars.
Moreover, even the players who do not graduate in six years have made the important first step of having attended college classes, demystifying an experience that could otherwise seem horribly intimidating. They, or their children, will be much more likely to think about college not as some untouchable place where smart people sit around and talk about Socrates all day, but as local institutions that they themselves can attend for their personal and financial benefit.
Finally, while they are in college, the football players are treated like kings, literally the Big Men on Campus. At most competitive programs, they live in special dormitories, eat (large amounts of) special food, and so on. Under even the most cynical view, in which athletes have supposedly received a fraudulent education, they still received several years’ worth of benefits that other people can only envy and dream about.
The Importance of Perspective, and the Anti-Intellectualism of the Critics
Nothing that I have written here should be construed to suggest that there are not problems with the current state of college sports in America. To say that things are not as bad as people say is, obviously, quite different from claiming that there are not issues that need further work. As noted above, the most pressing issues today have to do with serious injuries, along with continuing questions about the level of academic rigor in the courses taken by football players.
Still, perspective matters a great deal. Whereas it might be tempting to fall back on gross overstatements, for example that “Football players never graduate,” or that they take nothing but “basket-weaving” classes, the reality is far better than that. At the very least, we know that a large number of football players actually are graduating, and that even non-graduating players receive significant benefits both during and after their playing careers.
All of this admittedly focuses only on the benefits that players receive, as opposed to the benefits that their institutions receive by virtue of putting the players on the field (and on TV). The biggest scandal on that score, however, is that most universities allow their athletic departments to operate as separate financial entities from the rest of the institution. If the profits from football programs were flowing to the general scholarship funds, and to the salaries of assistant professors in the humanities departments, then the nonprofit ideal of higher education would be redeemed. Again, however, paying players would change none of that.
My larger point here, therefore, is to question why so many people act as if the very real benefits received by college football players are trivial or nonexistent. In part, one supposes, it is because the aggregate amounts of money seem so large. If colleges as a whole make billions from football, then should the players not receive at least some large chunk of that money?
Again, however, the argument that “They deserve something” is quite different if we understand just what the players are actually receiving. And what they are receiving is a college education—an imperfect one, in too many cases, but a higher education that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. They do deserve something, and they are getting something extremely valuable.
What they are not receiving, however, is million-dollar paydays. There are no scenes in which a college player stands on a stage holding a huge check with many zeroes on it. Those who complain about “unpaid” college football players, therefore, seem to be saying that money is more important than education.
That is a disturbing assumption for people to make. Yes, a lot of money is sloshing around college football. Although I would disagree, some people might believe that players should receive cash payments in addition to their full-ride scholarships. Treating what they currently receive as simply worthless, however, tells us more about the twisted perspective of the critics than anything else.
Higher education is more valuable than ever. We should not denigrate it by treating it as anything other than the best possible route to fulfillment and success. Those who receive it without paying for it are fortunate, indeed.