Over the last few years, the movement to pay college athletes has gained significant momentum, thanks in part to Taylor Branch's brilliant 2011 article eviscerating the college sports system and Ed O'Bannon's lawsuit against the NCAA for profiting off his image in video games without paying him. This is a good thing, because to any reasonable person, it is outrageous that college athletes, in particular football and men's basketball players, not only get zero percent of the billions of dollars in revenue they generate, but also aren't allowed to make a dime in profit off their skills from any source at all. Unfortunately, a disturbingly large percentage of fans, journalists, coaches and administrators continue to defend this indefensible system.
It doesn't take much effort to find these people. Whether it's Seth Davis's wrongheaded criticism of Branch's article, or Bob Stoops effectively telling his broke players "if you're going hungry, too bad, you're not the only ones," or Jim Delany putting a gun to his own conference's head and pulling the old Blazing Saddles "keep the players broke or the Big Ten gets it!" trick, you can always find an argument against paying players that's either ridiculous (Davis), heartless and paternalistic (Stoops), or a straight-up cynical ploy to maintain a profit margin (Delaney).
To see just how crazy the current system is, let's try to imagine what would happen if the music industry came under the NCAA umbrella. Flash back to 1992, when Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton, two Atlanta high school students, meet and form the hip-hop group OutKast. They release their number 1 single "Player's Ball" in 1993, and it's clear the two are on the way to superstardom. But as amateurs, they are not allowed to make any money and have to go to college for three years (say, at Georgia) before being eligible to be drafted by a professional label. While at college, they release ATLiens and Aquemini, but because they are still amateurs, they cannot profit from these wildly successful albums. When they are finally allowed to become professionals, they reach their peak fame with "Hey-Ya!" in 2003, but are still not allowed to profit off the success of their "amateur" songs and albums. Meanwhile, Georgia and whatever company produced those songs and albums makes a killing in royalties.
Such a system does not exist for musicians, because such a system makes no logical sense to anyone. Not even someone who supports the NCAA would ever support a system in which supremely talented young musicians and actors were not allowed to be paid. Yet somehow, due to a combination of ignorance, stupidity, jealousy and selfishness, these same people support an identical system for athletes.
Others have already spent considerable time obliterating the arguments from the don't-pay-the-players crowd (this Q&A with Sports On Earth's Patrick Hruby is very good), but there's one in particular I want to focus on, and that's the argument that players are already paid with an education, and that this education is sufficient (all three of the pieces arguing against paying players linked above make that point). There are several problems with this logic.
First of all, education is not money. While a scholarship unquestionably has significant value, it cannot be exchanged for money. A student who comes from a poor family cannot use the "payment" of education to help feed his family, and if he tries to borrow money from anyone for this purpose, he will get suspended on the eve of the biggest game of his career. Click that link. Jamar Samuels wasn't allowed to play in a tournament that CBS and Turner paid the NCAA billions of dollars to broadcast because he accepted $200 to feed his family. He was "paid" in education while everyone else involved was paid in cash.
But more significantly, an education is a nebulous form of payment because of the wildly different academic backgrounds of Division I athletes. If a kid is good enough, most schools will accept him no matter how poor his academic track record is and how ill-suited he is to attend college. Although 30% of high school graduates do not attend college, as far as I can tell, every single top prospect in both basketball and football is able to get into college. From Ohio State stand-out point guard and pre-med student Aaron Craft to Oklahoma State's illiterate star defensive end Dexter Manley and everyone in between, if you can play, a big-time program will find a spot for you. And for guys like Manley, an "education" is basically worthless if you cannot read.
Manley's case is certainly rare, but it's quite typical for players to either be clearly unfit for admission at an institution of higher education (like a UNC player who plagiarized 11 year olds) or be steered into completely useless classes in which they learn nothing and do no work (like the infamous Jim Harrick Jr. course at Georgia that featured a final exam question asking how many points a 3-pointer was worth). So the education may be worth something to the top students like Craft, but for many athletes, it's worth little to nothing. Paying someone who's illiterate with a college education is like paying a homeless guy with a 50 inch plasma TV; the TV may be worth $1000 to someone who likes watching sports or movies, but for the homeless guy, it's worth nothing.
But even if the colleges and universities in question stayed true to their purpose as institutions of higher education and only admitted qualified students and made sure those students took real classes, being paid in education alone still wouldn't be enough. There are no other businesses in which the people doing the actual work don't get paid. In fact, there are plenty of boosters out there who are more than willing to pay players, yet the NCAA and the schools involved actively collude to keep them from being paid. This is not only morally wrong, it's clearly a violation of American laws forbidding monopolies, anti-competitive collusion, and price-fixing. It should be obvious to anyone with a clue that the system is wrong. I recall explaining major college sports to a friend of mine, a young woman born and raised in China who had just come to Boston for school. I told her that college sports are almost as popular here as professional sports, yet the players are only given a scholarship, and her jaw literally dropped. She couldn't believe that the players were forbidden from being paid. "I thought this was the Land of the Free?!?!" she exclaimed, without irony.
So there you go, defenders of this nonsense. You're supporting an economic policy so outrageous that it shocked someone from a Communist country. Some of you support it because you are jealous of incredibly talented players getting a free education while you had to pay for yours because you weren't incredibly talented at anything. Some of you support it because you fear the changes that would inevitably result, selfishly caring more about yourself than changing a incredibly unjust system. And some of you are just hopelessly foolish or ignorant and will never accept reason.
As for how much the players should be paid and by whom, I really don't care, as long as they are given reasonable compensation. Give them a cut of the revenues generated, go to the Olympic model where they can accept endorsements and payment from third parties, give them an hourly wage, whatever. Just give them something. And more importantly, stop supporting a system that is obviously wrong. Bomani Jones on his podcast said this best a while ago, in a lengthy rant that you can listen to in its entirety here (the part I quoted starts at around 14:30):
If you don't agree with me [that players should be paid], you're wrong. I don't mean that you're wrong as in like factually being wrong, I mean like inside of who you are, you are wrong, you are reprehensibly wrong.....I don't see any way in the world that you can argue the idea that people put in work and don't get paid a currency that the market should bear out, and we're not talking about star NBA players making 14, 15 million dollars and having their wages capped, we're talking about guys that can't get anything at all, and the reason is this collusion by all the schools to keep them broke. Either you on the side over here with me and mine, or you're wrong, you're wrong inside, you're wrong as a person, and you are wrong logically, and if you are one of those people who believe that capitalism is a core principle of this country, then you are also wrong as an American, I can tell you a zillion levels on which YOU. ARE. WRONG. and me and my side is right, and if you just wanna be wrong, that's cool, but someone's gotta look you dead in your grill and tell you: YOU. ARE. WRONG....and if that's what it is and you just want to ride out with it, then ride out with it, but ride out with the knowledge that you're wrong and you just don't care, and don't come in my face talking about anything moral on any level ever again, because you are consciously making the decision to be on the side of wrong....you just tell me, if you pay someone with something they can't spend, while you know they're out hungry, while you know some of these cats can't afford to drive cars and stuff like that, and on top of that you know there's efforts made at every turn to KEEP. THEM. BROKE....you know this at every single turn, and you know that on the back end, people are out here getting paid millions of dollars off their backs...tell me how you don't know that you're wrong.
Jones' attitude is the perfect response to this "debate", because there shouldn't be a debate. If Jones is ever on ESPN in some contrived debate about whether or not to pay players, I hope he takes that some tone to anyone arguing the other side, because being on the other side is not acceptable. You are obviously in the wrong if you think the current system is okay, as obviously wrong as if you think racism is okay, or think having sex with someone without their consent is okay. Just as obviously, collusion and price-fixing are not nearly as evil as racism or rape, but all of them are equally indefensible. And someday, when Ed O'Bannon or someone like him beats the NCAA in court and players start getting paid like they should, we will look back on the days when college athletes weren't paid while others made millions off their backs as an embarrassing chapter in our history as Americans that we took too long to rectify. And if you somehow still don't agree with players being paid, look yourself in the mirror and realize just how wrong you are, and try to find some logic and compassion within yourself.