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Why College Athletes Deserve To Be Paid

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The college football season in the US officially started a couple of weeks ago, with a flurry of games captivating the attention of fans nationwide. The level of attention given to college sports in America can be baffling to an outsider. Not only do games attract massive crowds (sometimes nearing 100,000), they are also shown on television, followed by hundreds of thousands of people and endlessly debated and scrutinised in newspaper columns and sports radio shows. It may be early days, but this season’s potential winners and losers are already beginning to emerge, but one clear winner is set to upstage all others: the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The extremely high level of attention and interest in college sports such as american football and basketball means the NCAA, the non-profit organization responsible for managing college competitions, is hardly short of money. According to CNN, revenues from broadcasting rights and ticket sales were estimated to be somewhere around the US$3 billion mark in 2014. However, none of this money finds its way to the athletes themselves. By contrast, college coaches and NCAA employees’ salaries aren’t capped.

The debate about whether student athletes should be paid rears its head every year, with the most common arguments made against doing so pointing to the fact college-level sport is supposed to be an amateur enterprise. It may attract large amounts of attention and financial investment, but - the argument goes - it’s still no different to playing sport at school or a university elsewhere in the world. In this light, being part of a sports team at college is seen as part of the education students are paying their fees for, rather than as a job or a career.

However, the problem with taking this view is college is becoming increasingly more expensive. It’s a common misconception that college athletes graduate debt-free or studied on a full scholarship. In many cases, especially among those who don’t have the ability to play professionally after college, student athletes struggle for money. A majority of NCAA athletes come from black, disadvantaged, inner-city families, living below the poverty line and relying upon loans to cover basic costs such as room and board. For these students, one bad injury or a sudden loss of form could be the difference between a professional sports career and a lifetime in serious debt.

The racial divide

As NCAA revenue continues to climb, pressure to pay student athletes is growing. Last year, NFL player Michael Bennett told ESPN: “Hell yeah college players should get paid. NCAA gets paid. Rose Bowl gets paid. Everybody gets paid except the people making the product. In some countries, they call that slavery.”

Bennett’s reference to slavery is deliberately loaded. As previously mentioned, black athletes are disproportionately affected by the decision not to pay students, and a recent YouGov poll suggested support for paying college athletes is considerably higher among black people. Only 11% of black respondents said they were somewhat or strongly opposed to paying NCAA athletes, compared to 43% of white respondents.

Another recent study found that “negative racial views about blacks was the single strongest predictor of white opposition to paying athletes”. Racial resentment was deemed more important than all other factors, including political affiliation, age, education, and even experience playing college sports.

Tatishe Nteta, professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and one of the study’s authors, said to Vice Sports: “What [researchers] found is that when whites thought about welfare, the first picture they had [in their minds] was a black welfare queen, and that this person was stealing from hard-working Americans, who in the perceptions of most folks are white. It turned out those perceptions colored the way people responded to any question about the expansion of welfare."

Change is unlikely to happen soon, although the issue regularly rears its head in court, with former players coming forward and making the argument they should have been paid for their services. Mike McIntire, a journalist with the New York Times, has predicted it will take government-level intervention for the NCAA to start paying athletes, something which admittedly doesn’t seem likely anytime soon. Until then, the financial imbalance at the heart of college sports is only going to get worse.

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Written by Mathilde Frot
I'm originally French but I grew up in Casablanca, Kuala Lumpur and Geneva. When I'm not writing for QS, you'll usually find me sipping espresso(s) with a good paperback.

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