There are a number of reasons why college athletes deserve to be paid that I’m sure anyone reading this has been made well aware of: the huge incomes they generate for the schools, the lack of any meaningful amateurism in today’s NCAA landscape, the lack of substantive education top-tier athletes receive, the racial dynamics of the unpaid workforce (especially in the “revenue sports” of football and men’s basketball), and the huge professional risks players take on by participating.
Beneath all of this lies a simple theoretical doctrine at the core of the economic system we’ve all been taught to love — capitalism’s insistence that the work you do must be compensated with a wage.
Paying college athletes is a moral issue any way you slice it. It’s about what is deserved, about inequality, and about what is right. In tackling the issue, the first step is to acknowledge that the system currently in place is not necessarily the best one available.
First, a diagnosis of the current system is in order. The NCAA is a broken institution, a point made ever clearer by each passing scandal. Under the governing body’s amateurism model, college athletics are contested between volunteers who compete for the love of the game. Of course, there are very few college sports that actually operate like this — at Penn, perhaps sprint football (ironically not an NCAA sport) is the best example. In that sport, there are no scholarships, no fame, no glory, and no profit. The school offers the sport as a service to interested students in the same way they help fund a capella groups or improv troops.
The reality of today’s NCAA is far more professionalized, a point that hardly needs further explanation. Great sums of money flow between the relevant parties — fans and the media pay schools for access to the games, schools pay professional team personnel, and often, the athletes are paid by fans. Infrequently, athletes pay the school, a separate problem for a separate column.
In this environment, NCAA’s amateurism is enforced to keep athletes who generate the revenue from seeing a piece of the profits. This relationship is immoral on its face.
Consider the relationship in other terms. A company has several employees who, through their labor, create profits for the company. The company does not pay the employees directly, instead offering them free or reduced-price living arrangements in company-owned housing and food from cafeterias. The company shows off the glamorous and luxurious upgrades to its workplace, living space, and cafeteria in an effort to lure workers away from its rivals. While its normal workers go unpaid, the company pays exorbitant salaries to the managers and overseers of the workforce, who then, in some cases, abuse the laborers even beyond what onlookers deem necessary to extract the best possible product from them. The company protests that it cannot pay its laborers in the name of tradition, profit, and most shockingly, in order to protect the workers themselves from the harmful extravagance of a salary. The workers are also forbidden from making money from their own name or image. The whole arrangement is protected by an inter-state cartel of the company and its competitors.
This description perfectly fits two historical economic arrangements. The first is NCAA sports, especially Power Five football and men’s basketball. The second is the company town, which had its peak at the turn of the 20th century.
The company town model was decried as feudal and un-American as early as the 1890s, when the largest and most influential example, Pullman, was found illegal by the Illinois Supreme Court.
Capitalism has more than its fair share of flaws, and I don’t wish to suggest that it is the ideal standard we should strive for. Far from it. But the feudal, paternalistic, and anti-capitalist arrangement of the NCAA is even worse.
Our government must take action to solve this injustice, which happens, often, at state-run institutions. The first step is a new bill designed to give athletes the right to profit off their name and fame outside of the cartel’s grasp.
This must not be the only action taken.
THEODOROS PAPAZEKOS is a College senior from Pittsburgh and Senior Sports Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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