The campaign to generate salaries for college athletes is a standard rant that always accompanies the storied brackets of the annual NCAA March Madness basketball tournament—and the heat just got turned up on the issue, now that a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that Northwestern University student-athletes can unionize.
The debate about poor, lowly servants on the court sweating their way into Final Four legend is becoming as commonplace as trash talk over players’ on-court picks. Advocates for athlete pay want to convince viewers that salaried point guards somehow level the playing field in an industry that raked in more than $1 billion in TV ad revenue last year.
And recent gripes stem from the glaring reality that, as the University of Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Race in Equity and Education points out, black athletes account for a disproportionate share of football and basketball players in the top college conferences, 64 percent and 57 percent respectively, while they're only 3 percent of the student population. With such high numbers, many commentators and thought leaders jump to the conclusion that a coordinated system of neo-chattel slavery is in full effect.
But simply paying away these inequities isn’t going to help—nor is it really the point. And you can imagine how other students might feel—especially those struggling through college on loans, work-study and cobbled financial aid packages—if their schools were to suddenly add on new levels of preferential treatment on top of what they already offer athletes in full rides, housing, food and future market opportunities.
Hence, the argument unravels into one of the more unproductive chants in modern sports. Most Americans, when polled, already disagree with the notion of a paid college athlete. But paying athletes also defeats the purpose of going to college in the first place: educational and intellectual enlightenment. The debate rages on at a time when studies find that colleges are less frequently serving as centers of academic rigor and can be better described as degree-churning factories where students miss out on skills critical for post-campus professional development.
Critics of the system will throw money at any problem that smacks of exploitation. Yet, advocates for athlete pay are unwittingly engaged in a larger form of hollowing out the value of college—and the college athlete—as a scholar, which is what all students should aspire to. At a time when the rate of black and Latino college graduation rates are still low compared to their white peers (especially among black and Latino men), is paying athletes really the conversation we should be having?
On average, college athletes already earn anywhere from $55,000 to $125,000 a year in accumulated full tuition, room and board packages. In addition, NCAA academic reforms implemented in an effort to raise athlete standards have also imposed a cost on institutions as they scramble to either raise athletes' GPAs or risk penalties in costs and accreditation. Although college sports programs continue to find creative ways to game that reform system—at the expense of the athletes—it’s not as if athletes aren’t getting enough special attention, compared to other students. And the costs of that special attention end up getting transferred to those other students.
Perhaps the conversation should focus on what colleges could be doing with their multibillion-dollar-tourney jackpots to improve academic standards and even improve the post-college soft skills that underserved athletes matriculating through the sports-industrial complex—or other fields—will clearly need.
Too many of our athletes are not becoming citizens equipped to make positive contributions beyond camera-flashing layups. And with those problems still unaddressed as challenged athletes enter the professional marketplace, more socioeconomic costs pile up when players are unable to manage their lifestyles, their finances and their futures beyond what they can do on the court.
Paying athletes in college would do them a great disservice because the payment would not be focused on improving their scholastic achievement. But a more well-rounded view of the associated long-term consequences of underserving players may compel the sports-industrial complex to eventually put capital into the athletes' academic development. That is where everyone—from the players to the fans, teams and institutions—can get a real return on their investment.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. Follow him on Twitter.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.