“Student athletes” deserve pay and insurance

There is a growing demand for greater equity in big-time college sports. As it stands today, colleges are prohibited from paying so-called “student athletes” for their efforts, efforts that generate millions of dollars of revenue for the colleges, the coaches, TV networks, and others.

Adding to this inequity is the lack of protection for student-athletes injured while playing for their team.  In some cases, the adverse affects of repeated concussions doesn’t become apparent until years later, and there is not even coverage for medical care necessitated by the damage. And an inured player still in school can lose his scholarship because they are almost always awarded one year at a time and therefore may be renewed only at the discretion of the school. Use the athlete and then throw him away.

And now, the Joe Nocera, writing the New York Times Sunday Magazine, argues that the time is now to begin paying these students who’s efforts generate so much wealth.

The hypocrisy that permeates big-money college sports takes your breath away. College football and men’s basketball have become such huge commercial enterprises that together they generate more than $6 billion in annual revenue, more than the National Basketball Association. A top college coach can make as much or more than a professional coach; Ohio State just agreed to pay Urban Meyer $24 million over six years. Powerful conferences like the S.E.C. and the Pac 12 have signed lucrative TV deals, while the Big 10 and the University of Texas have created their own sports networks. Companies like Coors and Chick-fil-A eagerly toss millions in marketing dollars at college sports. Last year, Turner Broadcasting and CBS signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal for the television rights to the N.C.A.A.’s men’s basketball national championship tournament (a k a “March Madness”). And what does the labor force that makes it possible for coaches to earn millions, and causes marketers to spend billions, get? Nothing. The workers are supposed to be content with a scholarship that does not even cover the full cost of attending college. Any student athlete who accepts an unapproved, free hamburger from a coach, or even a fan, is in violation of N.C.A.A. rules.


The new breed of reformers, whose perspective I share, believes that the only way the major sports schools can achieve any integrity is to end the hypocrisy and recognize that college football and men’s basketball are big businesses. Most of these new reformers love college sports — as do I. They realize that having universities in charge of a major form of American entertainment is far from ideal, but they are also realistic enough to know that scaling back big-time college sports is implausible, given the money at stake. Instead, the best approach is to openly acknowledge their commercialization — and pay the work force. This is, by now, a moral imperative. The historian Taylor Branch, who in October published a lengthy excoriation of the N.C.A.A. in The Atlantic, comparing it to “the plantation,” was only the most recent voice to call for players to be paid. Like most such would-be reformers, however, he didn’t offer a way to go about it.

That’s what I’m setting out to do here.