Pro and Con: Paying College Athletes

This article was published on June 21, 2021, at Britannica’s ProCon.org, a nonpartisan issue-information source. Go to ProCon.org to learn more.

The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) is a nonprofit organization formed in 1906 that regulates college athletics, including game rules, athlete eligibility, and college tournaments. As of Mar. 2021, the NCAA was composed of “[n]early half a million college athletes [who] make up the 19,886 teams that send more than 57,661 participants to compete each year in the NCAA’s 90 championships in 24 sports across 3 divisions.”

The NCAA is seemingly the final authority to decide whether college athletes should be paid to play college sports. However, in 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the Fair Play Act that allows college athletes to hire agents, sign endorsement deals, and be paid for the use of their likeness.

California was the first state to pass a NIL (name, image, and likeness) law, which takes effect on Jan. 1, 2023. But the state was quickly followed by more states. As of June 10, 2021, 18 states have passed NIL laws; five more states have passed bills that were awaiting the governor’s signature to become law; 14 states have introduced NIL bills; and one state has a bill passed by the Senate and awaiting a House vote, according to the Business of College Sports

The NCAA was scheduled to vote on new NIL rules in Jan. 2021, but it then postponed the vote, citing “external factors.”  Days before the scheduled vote Makan Delrahim, JD, Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division of the United States Department of Justice under the Trump administration, questioned the proposed rules’ compliance with antitrust laws.

Additionally, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear a case (National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Shawne Alston, et al.) about whether the NCAA is violating antitrust laws by restricting college athletes’ compensation. The Supreme Court heard arguments on Mar. 31, 2021 as the NCAA March Madness tournament headed into Final Four games just days later, on Apr. 3. Respondents were split 50/50 in a June 1, 2021, New York Times survey about whether the NCAA strictly limiting paid compensation is constitutional.

Gabe Feldman, JD, Professor of Sports Law, Director of the Sports Law Program and Associate Provost for NCAA compliance at Tulane University, noted that the last time the NCAA was at the Supreme Court was in 1984 (NCAA vs. the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma). The ruling changed the broadcast regulations for college football. Feldman explained, “That was a shape-shifting decision that in many ways fundamentally changed economics of college football and college football television. And ever since that 1984 decision, courts have been relying on that language to try to interpret antitrust law applies to all NCAA restrictions, including player compensation.” 

On June 21, 2021, the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the NCAA cannot ban certain payments to student athletes under the premise of maintaining amateurism. Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the majority, stated, “traditions alone cannot justify the NCAA’s decision to build a massive money-raising enterprise on the backs of student athletes who are not fairly compensated. Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate. And under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it is not evident why college sports should be any different. The NCAA is not above the law.”

A 2019 Seton Hall Sports Poll found that 60% of those surveyed agreed that college athletes should be allowed compensation for their name, image, and/or likeness, while 32% disagreed, and 8% were unsure. This was quite a change from polling conducted in 2017, when 60% believed college scholarships were enough compensation for college athletes.

Pro

  • The NCAA, colleges, and universities profit unfairly from the work and likenesses of college athletes.
  • College athletes are risking their bodies as well as their future careers and earning potential to play for colleges and universities while often receiving a sub-par education.
  • College athletes are often valued at more than $1 million, but they (and their families) frequently live below the poverty line.

Con

  • Scholarships are fair financial compensation for college athletes, especially considering the precarious finances of athletic departments.
  • Very few college athletes will go pro, so athletes should take advantage of the education being offered in exchange for playing a college sport.
  • Paying college athletes would not solve the real problem: the American amateur sports system is broken.

To access extended pro and con arguments, sources, discussion questions, and ways to take action on the issue of paying college athletes, go to ProCon.org.

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