Pay college athletes, and stop pretending it’s ‘just for fun’

On Sunday evening, Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware suffered one of the most gut-wrenching injuries ever seen on a basketball court.

On Monday, observers realized that Ware’s status as a student athlete will now cost him a ton of money.

Here’s video of the injury:

As BuzzFeed notes:

Workers’ compensation [PDF] in Kentucky is based on the employee’s average weekly wage. Ware doesn’t make a wage, per se — that’s another feature of being a student-athlete. But researchers at Drexel University estimated [PDF] the fair market value of college players, based on how much they could make professionally; they estimated a University of Louisville basketball player’s market value for 2011-2012 at $1,632,103. An employee making that much in Kentucky would run up against worker’s comp maximums, which are pegged to the state’s average weekly wage. If that employee were totally disabled for a year from an on-the-job injury, he or she would get $39,139.88.

The NCAA operates a multi-billion dollar collegiate sports industry, but refuses to admit that its employees students are anything other than amateurs.


An injured Kevin Ware, via YouTube.

For example, Florida head coach Billy Donovan recently appeared in a commercial for UPS, which seemed to include every member of Florida’s basketball program except its players. Furthermore, Kevin Ware’s representation in the most recent iterations of college basketball video games must be Louisville’s “G #5” instead of “Kevin Ware.” In both cases, using players’ images or names for a profit would violate their amateur status. Former NCAA athletes are currently involved in a class action lawsuit against the NCAA over its licensing of their likeness in such video games.

And let’s not kid ourselves; especially on powerhouse teams, collegiate rosters are filled out by athlete-students, not the other way around. From one-and-done recruits to softball courses specifically for varsity athletes to outright grade-changes, the idea that players are really on campus for the sake of going to college, and only play sports on the side, is laughable. They are on campus to win games and make money for their respective universities, though ticket sales, ad revenue and licensing rights.

It is time they were paid accordingly.

But, rather than simply cutting athletes a check, the NCAA would do well to structure athlete pay so as to create incentives for actually going to class.

Consider the following structure:

  • Upon recruitment, Division I athletes sign a four-year contract which pays them a (small) base yearly salary.
  • For those four years, athletes are just that, athletes. They are not officially enrolled in their university and do not attend class. They play the sport they are there to play, and they are guaranteed admission to the college upon completion of the contract.
  • The difference between the athlete’s salary and fair-market value is placed in a fund, which is redeemed upon completion of the contract.
  • After their four years as an athlete are over, collegiate players would have the option of turning fully pro, taking advantage of their guaranteed admission to their college or taking their fair-market compensation out into the world as an adult.

A few caveats: It is important to note that this structure would only make sense at the Division I level; Division II and III schools do not offer athletic scholarships at the same level, compared to Division I schools (DIII offers none).

There are also a few thorny, unanswered questions with this proposal, relating to walk-ons and sports that aren’t as lucrative as football or men’s basketball (basically, should a walk-on water-polo player who has no interest in sitting through Intro to Biology when they are 22 years old be subject to this pay structure? Probably not).

In any case, I’d still offer this structure as a jumping-off point for those who wish to tackle the issue of faux-students deserving compensation for the incredible sums of money they are bringing into their institutions.

As the NCAA is so fond of saying in its commercials, “There are over 400,000 NCAA student-athletes, and most of [them] will go pro in something other than sports.” But if a significant portion of them (at least at the Division I level) aren’t taking class seriously, they will be missing out on the opportunity their education could provide them.

Allowing NCAA athletes to do sports first and opt in to taking classes later will ensure that those who do enroll actually get something out of their education. And for those athletes who don’t have an interest in going to class, or wish to turn pro, they will have at least been compensated for the revenue they brought their respective colleges.

Kevin Ware was not injured in his capacity as a student. He was injured while the University of Louisville and the NCAA were using him to make money. He, and other athletes like him, should be paid for the revenue they are bringing in and compensated for their on-the-job injuries as any other employee would be. Doing so could even result in some of the NCAA’s athletes becoming real students, as well.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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