The Slippery Slope of Paying Student-Athletes

pay for play


In the New York Daily News on Friday, March 27, 2009, David Zirin has forwarded the idea that the student-athlete — specifically the collegiate players in March Madness, the NCAA tournament to decide the champion of college basketball — should be given a portion of the vast revenues that these amateur athletes produce through their playing the games. In his op-ed piece, Zirin makes a grave error and perpetrates an erroneous misconception. He wants part of the revenues and profits of what CBS and NCAA basketball earns through the playing of the tournament to be placed in a trust fund to be paid to the student-athlete when they arbitrarily become the age of 25.

Theoretically and most probably, these players would no longer be participating in amateur college athletics and thus could draw on these funds as a reward for the generation of the billions of dollars they create through their labor and not affect their amateur status. Zirin uses this justification that the student-athlete is the reason that the media (CBS, et al.) and the various colleges that participate in the NCAA receive massive amounts of revenue. In essence, that is a true and factual statement. He further specifies and justifies that because many of these kids (the student-athletes) are from low-income backgrounds, are dedicating their time, and compromising their studies, that they deserve this compensation.

Then he asks what would happen if they went on strike? The answer is: nothing would happen, because the error of Zirin’s hypothesis and message is evident in his own words — these kids are student-athletes. If they cannot keep up with their studies then they cannot participate as part of their college’s team any further that season until their grades are up to standards. That is the point of being a student-athlete. It is the reason why student comes before athlete in that nomenclature.

Furthermore, if they do go on strike the reason nothing will happen is that other students will become athletes to take their place. Therefore, either these “on strike” student-athletes will have to go professional, form their own professional or semi-pro league, or return to their college teams. If they choose to form their own league, that is these people’s right to do if they so desire. Go ahead… form another league. We live in the land of opportunity. We believe in free enterprise.NCAA Paid

However, as far as paying these players: I say no! The humongous amount of revenue generated through collegiate athletics is indeed outrageous and obscene and how that revenue should be distributed and utilized by the NCCA and its member institutions does need to revamped and reorganized. It has become a multi-billion dollar business; of that there is no denial. Nevertheless, to pay a collegiate player goes against the totality of what amateur athletics is all about.

I do think certain athletes should be given stipends to assist them in providing room and board and to assist them in having a decent life socially outside of the regimen of athletics. After all, the true student-athlete (not the big-time going-professional-after-their-sophomore-year athlete) should be able to live in comfortable circumstances. They should be able to go out on a date and be able to pay for the movie or dinner. They should be able to fulfill whatever other need that a student may need to fulfill. They do give up vast amounts of time and effort to participate in a school’s athletic program and they should be given assistance since they do not have the chance to work to earn money for their own needs, for their own social gratification.

Zirin is an astute observer of the economic realities in sports, especially in professional sports, but in this circumstance Zirin’s mantra of the athlete as being a downtrodden, abused, alienated producer of the establishment’s money tree is misappropriated. Zirin has a legitimate argument that the collegiate athlete is a producer of wealth for their various schools just as the professional athlete is a producer of wealth for their various privately-owned franchises. But it does not follow that the collegiate athlete deserves to be paid hard cash money.

That is not the reason they should be playing sports on the college level; though for a select few it is the only reason they play the collegiate game. They should be playing for the love of the game. They should be playing for the fame and the glory. Moreover, they should be playing for the chance to compete on a level playing field to determine who is the better player or team on that specific day. We should not steal the right of these student-athletes to seek the honor, the emotion and the honest virtues of playing amateur athletics. We should not steal from these man-children the final few chances to be playing a sport on maybe the last level of pure competitive activity. It might be the last chance they actually have to play just for the love of the game for some of them. It may be the last thing that they can truly own that is without a price attached.

While Zirin, in my opinion, does not successfully argue for the student-athlete to be paid, albeit at a specified “post graduate” time, the point can be and is made by Zirin that college athletics on the major level is out of control. Unfortunately, collegiate athletics is big business, and, unfortunately, the college athlete is part of the reality of that vehicle that he exists in and performs.

Tom Dahlberg, an AP writer in a nationally-released column on March 29, 2009, states, “It’s an open secret that many rules are ignored… when it comes to recruiting. Coaches cheated long before college basketball became such a big business and the temptation to do whatever is necessary to grab star players rises exponentially with the huge money colleges now pay their coaches.” The point Dahlberg leaves unsaid is that it is also an open secret that many amateur athletes are already pampered and given status and special treatment that includes, among other things, preferential treatment for housing, nutrition and, yes, monetary considerations that are hidden through one means or another.

I would further aver that a person could go to any major college and put that school to the iron test and that school will invariably fail that test. That is, I believe all schools will have NCAA violations to one degree or another. Student-athletes should be in the game for the love of the game, for the competition and the achievement of passing the test, that determines who is best on a given day, in a given season. This may be a very naive way to look at college or amateur sports today but it is what the collegiate player is supposed to be attempting to do as a student-athlete: thriving in an extracurricular athletic competition despite sacrifices he makes to other aspects of his life because he or she loves the game.Cam Newton check

To pay athletes begins to take the final step to a future I am not ready to envision. To do as Zirin hypothesizes and pay the college player, even in a predetermined future and not in the present, opens the door to formally creating the complete antithesis of the idea of collegiate sports as an amateur activity. It begins the irreversible and ultimately ugly step of transforming college sports into a semi-pro league of paid athletes.

Yes, the student-athlete is the producer of the wealth that the NCAA and its affiliated associates enjoy. In other words that Zirin might use, the labor of the student-athlete is the direct cause and producer of the wealth that the capitalist powers take as their own to do with as they wish. The solution of how to reward the student-athlete for producing this wealth is not to pay the student-athlete. Rather, it is to reinvent and redesign how that wealth is distributed. The solution is to create an ethical and productive system whereby all the student body can enjoy the profits of the student-athletes’ labor. And, that is the real meaning of the redistribution of wealth according to the needs rather than the means.


Submitted 4/4/2009

Tiny URL for this post:




  1. However… Presently, I am on the fence about college kids unionizing… why? While I still feel the way I did when I wrote that piece when I did… the NCAA needs to figure out a way to compensate student athletes for such things as providing a true and totally cost free education, providing medical bennies for any, and all injuries (especially long term ones that need long term attention) incurred while playing for any collegiate program and for providing a stipend so they can have funds to jsut be college kids… other students can have jobs to get money… student-atheletes’ spare time, where they could get a job, is taken up by the fact that they play sports for their respective college teams.

    Long story short… I still don’t necessarily support a union for student-athletes as much as I support the ideals that a union stands for, and, that, on some level, these kids deserve.

    The NCAA should get up off their collective rich asses and do the right thing for these dedicated kids. Or, everyone may go down a very thorny path that, in the future, they all may rue that they had traversed.

    Or, as I said in the conclusion to the article presented here: “… it is to reinvent and redesign how that wealth is distributed. The solution is to create an ethical and productive system whereby all the student body can enjoy the profits of the student-athletes’ labor. And, that is the real meaning of the redistribution of wealth according to the needs rather than the means.”

  2. Maybe I’m simplifying things when I say this but what’s wrong with giving the kids a few dollars? Yes they are getting a free education, but these schools are making millions off of them, so what’s wrong with relaxing NCAA rules a little and put some walking around money in their pockets?

  3. Absolutely nothing… and… I second that emotion… (my apologeis to the groups “War” and “The Miracles”. )

  4. Hello i am kavin, its my first time to commenting anyplace, when i
    read this article i thought i could also make comment due to
    this brilliant paragraph.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.