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Pay for Play: Should College Athletes Get Paid?

With Northwestern University’s win in court, an important question is being raised across the country: Should college athletes trade in their status as student athletes for employees? Many argue that with all the time athletes spend practicing and competing, and the money that the big sports (and names), especially in sports such as football, bring in, the athletes should be compensated. However, will their classification as employees bring about more hassles and possibly end collegiate athletics to some extent?

The main areas that need to be explored include: the value of an education, smaller university athletics, and sports that do not profit in the same way as larger sports.

Although some athletes may only attend college due to their athletic abilities and desires to play at a higher level, value needs to be given to a college education. Currently, in exchange for the “work” they do for their university, many athletes are awarded partial or full scholarships to remove the financial burden of a college education, compensate them for their time, and lure in the bigger name athletes. However, salaries takes the emphasis off of the education athletes are receiving and places it solely on their value on the athletic field. The more talented an athlete is, the more money they can potentially receive: pinning universities against each other in a bidding war for their talent. Bigger schools obviously have more money to spend on more talented players, which not only alters the playing field at all levels, but then also removes the money that typically is used by the university to fund the smaller, less profitable sports. With football and basketball being the most profitable sports on many college campuses, the money brought in by those sports is often distributed across the smaller/less profitable sports. If the money brought in by football is solely used to pay their athletes, what happens to the other sports teams- do they disappear completely due to lack of funding? Furthermore, once the football team successfully transitions to pay for play, won’t other athletes follow suit? However, if universities focus their attention on the sports that bring in the most money, what happens to the athletes in the less profitable sports? They are not training any less hard than those athletes who play football and/or basketball so should deserve the same benefits? Unfortunately, others could argue that not all athletes are due fair benefits because they are not making enough money for the university. The slippery slope begins…

What about injured players? Injuries are common in sports. What happens if an athlete who is receiving a large salary endures a season, or possibly even a career ending injury- do they then lose their status as an employee as they are no longer able to fulfill the requirements of their job? If so, how do they pay back the money they might owe or pay for their remaining college education if they did not properly save their money. All to often we hear about the financial struggles of those in professional sports- athletes making million dollar salaries filing for bankruptcy shortly after their career ends. Do we expect 18-22 year olds to be more financially responsible?

On another note, does the value placed on the education student athletes receive become diminished as they become employees of the university? Current athletic requirements include academic standards; however, as an employee can a sport dictate how they want an employee to approach class work? Only a small few of those who play in college are able to successfully transition into professional athletics, but at least have a college education to find themselves a career when their sports days are over. If there are no academic requirements, and the athlete chooses not to take their education seriously, can these athletes be awarded a degree at the end of their college career or do they leave empty handed? Does a pay for play structure just send a bunch of men and women into the world unprepared to be competitive in the job market?

There has to be a better way to address the areas that are lacking in college athletics without creating a potentially dangerous slippery slope. A lot of attention was paid to Shebazz Napier’s claims that many nights he goes to bed starving. The current structure of athletics can easily be reorganized in order to ensure that college athletes are receiving scholarships as well as a percentage of cost of living expenses since they are unable to have part-time jobs similar to their non-athlete counterparts. Athletes and universities need to consider all the consequences before implementing a pay for play structure- is it truly in the best interest of the athlete?

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