Paying College Football Players

Matt Yglesias has an interesting TAP piece on why college football players should get paid. The crux of the argument:

College football is a big business, attracting huge quantities of viewers and, with them, huge amounts of money spent on trying to reach those viewers. There’s an opportunity to make money in this neighborhood and so, naturally enough, everybody gets in on the action.

Everybody, that is, except the people doing the work: the players.

Getting people to perform valuable work on your behalf without pay is a neat trick, and the administrators who have pulled it off deserve a tip of the cap for cleverness. To play professional football one needs, in effect, to put in three to five years playing college football first. The college teams, however, have formed a cartel through the NCAA that prohibits all of them from paying their players, thus shutting down the market mechanisms that in normal fields allow people who perform valuable services to acquire wages for their trouble. In theory, the idea is that these are amateur athletes, but nothing about the competition in which they’re engaged has any suggestion of amateurism beside the basic fact that the workforce isn’t getting paid. In any industry outside of sports, this would be regarded as intolerable.

I agree with this. Even as a college professor, I thought athletes were being exploited and that NCAA rules that, for example, made an athlete choose between the professional draft and his college eligibility were wrong.

Here’s the rub, though: Matt’s argument for paying players only works for revenue sports. That, basically, means major conference football and men’s basketball plus a handful of baseball and women’s basketball programs. Title IX, however, would require paying comparable salaries to all college athletes. And, because football programs are so large, they are offset by numerous money-draining women’s teams that have no marketing value whatsoever.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ICallMasICM says:

    I went to college on a basketball scholarship – isn’t that getting paid enough?

  2. Reporter for Doody says:

    Salary caps and contracts next?

  3. Steven Plunk says:

    Why not just split ’em up?

    Quit the charade and just draft highschoolers into the minor leagues of whatever sport and give scholarships to…scholars.

    The whole student athlete thing is hooey. Thousands of athletes get scholarships which they turn into nothing. A lot of people who really want to learn get no scolarships.

    I guess the only winner here (as usual) is the universities. Build more buildings, hire more diversity experts and expand womens studies programs. Just what we need.

  4. legion says:

    On this, I have to agree with ICallM… Especially considering the exorbitant cost of a decent (for some value of ‘decent’) college education these days, being on scholarship counts as a pretty damn nice paycheck.

    Walk-ons, however, may have an argument to make. Of course, if they argue too loudly (or too effectively), it will only discourage coaches from taking walk-ons, but that’s a debate for an entirely different website 🙂

  5. Anderson says:

    The scholarships are woefully disproportionate to the colleges’ revenue, is my understanding.

    As for Title IX, I don’t see a problem with football’s subsidizing lawn hockey or whatever. You could pay these football players a good deal less than their “fair share” and it would still be a great deal more than they’re getting now. And we would see less of these ridiculous cases where the team gets suspended because an alum bought the fullback new tires.

  6. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘The scholarships are woefully disproportionate to the colleges’ revenue, is my understanding.’

    Almost all colleges lose money on their athletic programs.

  7. Anderson says:

    Almost all colleges lose money on their athletic programs.

    Got a cite?

  8. C.Wagener says:

    OK here are a few random comments:

    1. I think this could be done inexpensively. A small stipend would work wonders since most of the problems involve kids from poor families that can’t provide small amounts of cash.

    2. I think you can legally discriminate. Title IX doesn’t require a scholarship for each varsity athlete. A friend of mine’s son was a three year starter for a national championship water polo team (USC), but was not on scholarship.

    3. I have heard that almost all sports programs lose money when comparing expenses versus ticket sales/tv rights. I suspect that booster contributions and academic contributions and student attendance that otherwise would be there if not for sports teams, makes it rational to have these programs.

  9. James Joyner says:

    CW: Title IX doesn’t require treating kids equally but DOES prohibit treating men and women differently. So, any money paid to football players would have to be offset with payments to players on women’s teams.

  10. DaveD says:

    I used to consider that college athletes were exploited. Then I realized that the ones I thought were most exploited were the ones who were really in the programs that make the most money for the university (and probably because of that were probably doing quite well for themselves anyway). I figure the kids in the less publically visible intercollegiate sports are just as dedicated as those in the elite sports like football and basketball. So, the universities over the decades continue to make more and more money off of the public’s interest in the elite sports. So I now take the “fine by me” position. Under current laws the financial windfall from elite sports has helped raise the standards of sports facilities in general on campuses. I’m not a PSU grad but I believe Paterno’s long term success has been a benefit to many sports on the PSU campus other than football.

  11. David Pinto says:

    College athletes used to be paid by Alumni. Remember all the scandals about boosters buying cars for athletes to get them to attend a particular school? It was free agency at work! Now, an alumnus can barely talk to a high school athlete without committing a recruiting violation. Let’s go back to the days of no-holds barred recruiting and the money issue will take care of itself!

  12. Jeff says:

    I’ve thought for awhile now that Title IX should exclude football because of the disproportionate number of scholarships in that sport.

  13. It’s an old story, but try this article says the average Division I-A athletic department showed a loss after removing the subsidy they received from general school funds.