College Athletes Need Pay, Not Perks

Sure, college athletes get plenty of fringe benefits. But those don't make up for not getting paid.

This guy's life is pretty good. He still deserves to get paid.

Photographer: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

As March Madness continues to enthrall us, critics of the National Collegiate Athletic Association have taken the opportunity to call once more for salaries for the student athletes on whose skilled backs the men’s basketball tournament earns its annual 10-figure income.

Many proposals for paying players are relatively modest, but ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, interviewed in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, made a full-throated case: “When you are profiting off someone else while restricting them from earning a profit, that’s exploitation.” He added: “No other student on any campus is restricted from earning whatever they can earn in whatever area they can earn it.”

QuickTake College Sports

Regular readers will know that I am no fan of the NCAA. And although in times past I have been something of a college-sports purist, I, too, have come around to the view that the players should share some of the profits they generate for the colleges and the association.

But before we go too far in calling the treatment of the players' exploitation, let’s consider the possibility that they’re being paid already. I’m not referring here to the occasional scandals in which agents or boosters slip athletes money under the table. I’m talking about the actual value of the nonpecuniary compensation that college athletes receive.

In a useful post last summer, economist and legal scholar Neil H. Buchanan pointed to several myths in the debate over whether college athletes should be paid. For example, he reminded us that few college athletic departments “make money”; the great majority, even among the most successful, are a net drain on university finances, not a net contributor to them.

More important to the present question, athletes do receive several forms of compensation. First, there is the education itself. The claim that four years of cost-free college don’t really amount to compensation, wrote Buchanan, “seems to betray a certain anti-intellectualism.” In addition, the athletes “are still given free room and board, and in almost every university in the country, those accommodations are spectacularly comfortable.”  

They also receive “the chance to audition for a career in professional sports” -- and although the odds are long, Buchanan notes, the students themselves still evidently value the opportunity to try. One should also mention the psychic income the student might earn from the camaraderie, the competition and the chance to play for a championship.

Moreover, the top universities build fantastic facilities -- better, as Bilas notes, than most pro teams. Says Buchanan: “These gilt-edged facilities make the four years of athletic eligibility even more appealing and comfortable to the athletes, and they also maximize players’ abilities to audition for the professional leagues.”

One might take this last point a step further. Highly paid professionals in the private sector often remark that tenured university professors have nicer offices than they do. This shouldn’t be at all surprising. Nonprofits frequently provide “gilt-edge facilities” precisely because they face limits -- partly legal, partly reputational -- on their ability to pay high salaries. Workers will often accept lower pay to work in nicer facilities.

Thus the construction of fancy athletic training centers and arenas itself can be said to represent a form of compensation. We know this because of the eagerness with which coaches show off their facilities to potential recruits.

And yet, at the end, I’m more with Bilas than Buchanan. It still seems to me that the colleges, and the NCAA, are taking advantage. Consider: Even if employees of nonprofits generally receive relatively lower money wages, they do not receive a zero money wage. College athletes do. It’s possible to imagine a rational worker accepting a zero money wage because the fringe benefits are so great, but the circumstances would have to be extraordinary. Few teenagers are cognitively prepared to judge whether that extraordinary circumstance has arrived.

So although I think Buchanan is right that the debate over paying college athletes doesn’t sufficiently value the nonpecuniary benefits they already receive, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t also be paid a wage in money.

 Many people worry that colleges would compete for the star athletes and the big colleges would win. Bilas argues that paying players would even the playing field between the larger and smaller schools. I suspect, to the contrary, that the gap would widen. If Big University, with its wealthy and enthusiastic alumni base, can raise $100 million for a new sports facility and Little College can raise only $10 million, it stands to reason that Big University will also be able to raise much more for player salaries than Little College.

That likelihood saddens me as a purist, as well as for reasons of distributional justice. But it’s no sadder than the fact that people of great wealth tend to give to already wealthy universities rather than to tiny colleges that could really use the money. And, certainly, even if we’re sad that some schools have more fundraising prowess than others, there’s no reason to take our worries out on the players.

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