Last week, Charlie Dolgenos, a fellow DP staffer, wrote a column on why college athletes should be paid.
I’m about to ostracize myself from at least half of the athletics community by arguing why student athletes should not be paid for participating in amateur sports.
Most arguments saying that student athletes should be paid center around equating practice and competition hours with labor. Because college athletes dedicate five hours a day to their sport, in addition to adequately taking care of sleep, hydration, and nutrition, they should be paid since the time spent honing their skills could be valuable elsewhere.
In an argument based on pure compensation of labor, we must talk about the economic value of an athlete’s labor in comparison with the alternatives. The average out-of-state tuitions for the 2018-2019 school year are $21,629 for public school and $35,676 for private school. An athlete on full scholarship at Duke, a basketball powerhouse, will avoid paying roughly $235,000 for a top-notch education, which I believe is worthy compensation for putting in several years of hard work into becoming a player with a high enough caliber to be recruited by Duke in the first place.
Surely then, the opportunity cost for time spent training, in exchange for the waiver of crippling debt, cannot be offset by a work-study job that pays minimum wage minus taxes. Alternatively, only about two percent of college athletes make it big. Specifically, only 1.1 percent of basketball players and 1.5 percent of football players play in the NBA and NFL, respectively.
So athletes who believe that they should be paid because they could be making money as pros already have tremendous odds stacked against them. Even then, statistically, being the No. 1 draft pick doesn’t guarantee an extremely successful career; between 1990 and 2014, only 80 percent of players drafted in the No. 1, 2, and 3 spots have averaged at least 10 points in the NBA. Those picked outside the top 12 have a fewer than 30 percent chance.
Now, the debate moves to exploitation. Big sports schools make a lot of money through their athletic programs; Texas A&M made an average of $148 million per year over three years through its football team alone. The argument evolves to say that if a school makes money from making athletes miss school to play in revenue-making games and uses player likeness to boost publicity and admissions, then the athlete is being exploited as he or she fulfills the duties of a professional without being rewarded for doing so. The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is a prime example of this.
I have two counters to this argument. First off, an athlete gains a lot more from an established school, be it brand exposure or an elite platform to showcase their talent, than the other way around. Zion Williamson’s fall against North Carolina sparked outrage; why should the likely future No. 1 NBA draft pick risk his potentially successful (and lucrative) NBA career for a team that will give him nothing?
To consolidate his position as a top draft pick, Williamson needed Duke. What better than a school led by legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has led Duke to 14 ACC Championships, 12 Final Four appearances, and five National Championships, to help a young athlete emotionally and physically mature and get ready for the big leagues? In what world would have Nike’s stock value dropped by $1.1 billion if a top high school basketball player’s shoe had blown up in a local game?
The platform these schools provide is only made possible by the heavy reinvestment of profits into state-of-the-art athletic facilities, gear, exclusive dorms and cafeterias, world-renowned athletic staff, and the automatic propulsion of athletes to celebrity status before they even step foot on the college campus. One cannot quantify the effect of Duke on Williamson’s personal brand, bolstered by him being named ACC Rookie and Player of the Year, as it requires the calculation of many intangible variables. When less than two percent of college athletes go pro and even fewer make it big, I think that demanding extra compensation on top of a free education and star-treatment for four years at big sports school is misuse of a privilege to be able to carry your passion with you to the next level.
My fellow student athletes and I may have received some leeway in the academic realm of our acceptances to college as a reward for our athletic prowess, as while growing up we invested the time that could have been spent studying to pursue our athletic goals. I believe we deserve this flexibility because we have earned it and proudly represent our school for four years, but demanding monetary compensation is an abuse of this privilege.
Secondly, the NCAA Tournament accounts for 90 percent of the NCAA’s annual budget. All the profits are divided amongst participating conferences in a complex long-term pay structure, and the NCAA retains only four percent of the money made during March Madness, which largely goes towards their own operating costs. Larger conferences divide profits and send them to member schools, while smaller conferences use most of the money for their own expenses, with very little transferred to member schools.
Moreover, only one-third of schools made a profit or broke even on their basketball programs in the 2013-2014 school year. Louisville topped the earning charts with $24.2 million, an amount which likely went to support most of the non-revenue-making sports.
The myth of schools and the NCAA holding on to revenue without distribution is a harmful one; the fixed costs of athletic programs are aplenty, especially when it comes to modernizing facilities, providing scholarships, and paying for good recruiting for all sports. I believe that there is no real merit in demanding compensation for labor because the profits aren’t stagnant — they pay for operating costs like administration, staff, and other overhead.
Lastly, I think that student athletes mainly continue to play their sports at the collegiate level because competition and training become an integral part of us. Personally, tennis has been my life since I was three years old. Growing up, it was not only therapeutic, but it became intertwined with my identity and sense of self. I moved to the United States from India at the age of 12 to pursue my dream of playing professional tennis.
On the eve of my 16th birthday, while fulfilling a lifelong dream of playing for India at the Youth Olympic Games, I was told that I had torn my shoulder and would have to take three months off. I had felt that sharp pain for a year, but in the chaos of pushing myself to get to the next level, I didn’t want to stop.
My body wanted to stop, and, consequently, my mind took a dark dive.
Although I started the recruiting process really late, Penn saved me from my spiral. For 15 years, my happiness had been inextricably linked with how I performed on a tennis court, and Penn made me believe that I could be so much more. My mental health suffered immensely because of underperformance on the court in college; my grades slipped and I fell into a black hole of self-destruction where I blocked out any light from entering and helping me out. The sheer joy of being able to represent something bigger than myself and play alongside teammates whom I love dearly not only helped me rebuild myself, but also changed my vision of who I want to be in the future.
College athletics helped me emotionally mature and developed my character in ways that no other activity ever could, and I am all the better for it. The relationships I’ve formed along the way, be it with the staff at the tennis center, or with the school itself, have enriched my college experience beyond measure. At no point did I ever think of monetary compensation; I just felt grateful for every moment I got to hold a tennis racquet, all the pain included.
Don’t get me wrong, Penn can do a lot more for its athletes, and one of those many improvements is excusing absences for varsity athletes who miss class to represent Penn in competitions.
However, as a second-semester senior on the brink of leaving competitive tennis forever, I couldn’t imagine college without athletics and would do it all over again in a heartbeat — even without any compensation.
OJ SINGH is a College senior from New Delhi, India and an Associate Sports Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian. She is also a member of Penn women's tennis. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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