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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38 Responses to “Pay college athletes, and stop pretending it’s ‘just for fun’”

  1. SMART GUY says:


  2. SkippyFlipjack says:

    They’re actually making extra money off his injury that he can get no part of..

  3. Yezzir says:

    We should just get rid of college athletics all together. Most schools in reality operate in the red, and that takes away tons of money from students who actually go there to learn. The NCAA is incredibly corrupt, and there’s no telling what scandal will erupt next (Pedo State is just… Well…) and the ohio state is bullshit.

    That being said, never watched a football game, never will. I watched a minor league baseball game real close to home and, while I hated it (only because baseball is boring lol), the minor league model is much much better than NCAA. Yes, they do get paid ONLY to play baseball (not very much, but it IS livable), but they’re not mooching off anybody’s back or feeding a machine of corruption.

    Simply being, D1 athletes aren’t (by definition) amateurs, and the purpose of college should be to educate, not entertain.

  4. Amy Crawford says:

    Lots of these kids get scholarships, so don’t have the pain of student loans. College sports shouldn’t be for profit, and the athletes shouldn’t be held to a different academic standard.

  5. emjayay says:

    Big time college sports are a tradition. So was slavery. Both something that evolved and became a part of culture and seen as an economic necessity. If a student has time for all the practices and games and away games, then his or her classes are just way too easy. I have no idea how to get there, but colleges should not have anything beyond intramural club level sports. It’s just a measure of our ignorance that high school and college football and basketball are to a lot of people the biggest deal part of going to school. Or donating money later. Practicing piano and violin: academic. Practicing bouncing a ball while running: not academic.

  6. SI Reasoning says:

    I think there are some assumptions made in this article that I think are inaccurate. The biggest one is that the athletes are either not intelligent enough for college or that the kids get no benefit from being in college. Either way, I strongly disagree. Maybe my vision is clouded because of how Nick Saban runs his football program at Alabama, but one can tell a noticeable difference between the intelligence level of an incoming freshman and a departing senior (and sometimes junior.) Even if the player is destined for the pros, the benefit of an education can better prepare the student in how to handle his money, as well as have something to fall back on should things not work out. Basketball is a different beast in that many of the best athletes only stay for one year, then turn pro (which I think is a terrible arrangement as it requires the kind of indentured servitude the author complains of for one year while not allowing the student enough time to actually gain much benefit from college as they would only be taking core classes.) Regardless, the schools should be 100% responsible for any health related issues stemming from the student/athletes participation in the respective sports program, and that health care should continue even after the athlete has moved on for any long term injuries.

  7. Yangshuo Omeida says:

    Difficult call to be honest

  8. Sweetie says:

    “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.”

    That’s really silly. The entire point of having college athletes is for them to be students. If they aren’t students, then they have no reason to be athletes for the school.

  9. Asterix says:

    Sure–right now, the NCAA is profiting mightily. The local university football coach has a package deal somewhere in 8 figures, plus a lot of benefits. The athletes get an education if they manage to stay healthy and the university is not held to account to any ailments that might result from the athlete participation years down the road.

    And the university spends about 10 times as much on a football player than the average undergrad. Hell, here the jocks have their own academics building, complete with paid tutoring staff.

  10. Blogvader says:

    I disagree, Jomi. In my opinion, there should be a career track for pro athletes, focusing on Phys Ed, Public Communications, and Personal Finance. These are subjects that are applicable and important to all professional athletes, and there are tens of thousands of athletes that go on to play pro sports somewhere in the world.

    If also think the NCAA should be footing all of the medical bills for injured athletes.

  11. mirror says:

    Thanks for the link. Among other things, I like the way the author distinguishes between different sports and different schools. “SI’s stance suggests college sports should be viewed entirely in
    an economic light: If you don’t pay for yourself, you have to come up
    with money to finance the program. That devalues the effort of a
    non-revenue athlete. It also assumes football and basketball are
    universally profitable. That’s not the case, especially with football.
    Not every school is Texas or Michigan or Ohio State.”

  12. mirror says:


    Jon wasn’t really wanting to stick it to “the man.” That was just a thought experiment. Mainly he wanted to emphasize the undeservingness of the college athlete.

  13. mirror says:

    What is your point then? You sound as if there is a herd of undeserving athletes taking your graduate fellowship opportunities. You sound very bitter. But at least you have some emotional edge here. Why write the fakey article about how concerned you are for the athletes, when half a thought put into it would allow you to remember that the vast majority of those undeserving athletes have essentially zero market value outside of providing a practice team and line fodder?

  14. Swami_Binkinanda says:

    Teaching kids to be bullying imbeciles who think shouting FACT before every statement they make adds gravitas to their arguments?

    Teaching kids to play through injuries such that they are crippled in later life with head injuries, knee and leg injuries and so on that impede the greater portion of their adult lives?

    How much revenue do sports really need to produce to support people running around the countryside, kicking the ball in a rectangular field, hitting a ball, rowing a boat? Sounds specious to me. Real sports don’t need state subsidies and television exposure. That’s why rugby is real and football is boring.

    And I find it hard to believe that anyone can say “for love of the game” with a straight face when these kids are pampered and showered with gifts (Go Huskies); their criminal indiscretions covered up including rape, kidnapping and murder; and if they fail they are discarded like rotting meat with nothing to show for it but scars. I think a great case could be made that school athletics is corrupting and an overall negative for students whose real achievements are buried under the corruption, lies, criminality and venal competitiveness of college athletics.

  15. jomicur says:

    Fine, pay them. But make them quit school to focus on their “careers.” Better yet, shut down college sports altogether. Clowns who graduate with stunning ability to kick or throw a ball but are barely able to read and write have no more right to a college degree than a trained porpoise. Schools are supposed to be about academics, not games.

  16. Indigo says:

    It’s not like they’re getting a solid education, they’re athletic performers. You’re right, they should absolutely get worker’s comp. I think he should sue for it if only to see how far up the courts that issue can go.

  17. Larry Weisenthal says:

    “Wow, who knew that being a fourth-string halfback who never gets to play
    unless there’s an absolute slaughter could teach you so many things?”

    Hi Mr. Forth, You have obviously never been a competitive athlete, or else you’d know that it’s 99% journey and 1% game, with respect to teamwork, leadership, discipline, time management, ability to deal with adversity, coming to practice when you are hurting, etc.

    – Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA

    P.S. I like this particular take on the issue:

  18. SkippyFlipjack says:

    I think the workers-comp angle isn’t that interesting. Students get hurt all the time, slipping on ice, playing intramural volleyball or getting too excited in a beer pong game. When that happens, is your first thought “Oh no, what will they do for money?” That’s what you think when someone has a debilitating injury that keeps them from working, but not when a student has a similar injury because they have flexible schedules and low financial needs. Maybe they rearrange their class schedule because they need more than 5 minutes between classes on crutches; maybe they get take-home exams or online coursework. What happened to Kevin Ware is very sad but not because he missed out on a $39k windfall.

  19. AdmNaismith says:

    I always though college athlete should be paid (’cause calling this ‘just for fun’ really is a lie), and that the money should go straight for tuition or put into escrow until they are 25 or 30.

    Better yet, dismantle the athletics and put all the money into the Theater Depts- Theater is a better teacher of teamwork and personal excellence, and dancers are way better athletes than sports athletes.

  20. Jon Green says:

    Yes, it’s unfair when students who aren’t allowed to enroll in varsity athletes’ joke classes (for example: at Texas A&M, there’s a whole “-A” section of the curriculum for varsity athletes, taught at an effectively middle school level) graduate with the same degree and same GPA without doing the same work. There’s a debate to be had (signalling vs. human capital) as to whether this matters in the job market, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make.

  21. Naja pallida says:

    The cloth is already gone. People are just pretending they can’t see the dangling bits.

  22. SkippyFlipjack says:

    Good points except that the Ivy League schools are sort of an outlier to this discussion — athletes tend to be qualifiers or close to it. in general, anyone on the Princeton basketball team would have gotten a college education with or without their athletic prowess.

    the “revenue sports” thing is a huge debate that won’t be settled here — yes football and to a lesser extent basketball bring in a lot of money but they also cost a lot, in capital expense and in scholarships. for many schools they’re a losing proposition, and the other sports could be supported by the schools like any other non-academic expense.

  23. “Athletics teaches teamwork, discipline, time management, ability to deal with defeat and adversity, ability to ‘play hurt’, and so many other things of direct relevance and value to post-college life.”

    Wow, who knew that being a fourth-string halfback who never gets to play unless there’s an absolute slaughter could teach you so many things?

  24. Fifi says:

    How about doing away with collegiate sports altogether?

    I simply don’t understand what those activities are doing within tax-exempt, donation deductible organizations (ostensibly) meant to provide higher education.

  25. mirror says:

    Well said! One caveat, my experience is that most people don’t understand that very few athletic scholarships for men are 100% other than football and basketball. For example, D1 NCAA baseball teams are only allowed 11 scholarships per 33 man roster. Since attracting top pitchers often takes more than a 50% scholarship, a lot of student/athlete baseball players are getting less than 30% scholarships.

    I am troubled by those schools or programs within schools who truly don’t genuinely care whether their incoming student/athletes graduate. That is to say, graduation is low on their priority list. Football teams need such an enormous number of players, it seems like it would be, and is, easy for coaches and administrators to see the lesser players as just meat.

  26. mirror says:

    Hey, you magically changed from Brian to Jon!

  27. Larry Weisenthal says:

    I’m a lib-prog, Obama supporter/contributor, but I believe that too many of my ilk have publicly expressed the sentiments stated in the present blog post, and these sentiments are wrong headed.

    You want to make it sound as if college athletes are exploited by “the man.” No, no, and no.

    Fact: A college education is stated to be worth in the 7 figures, over a lifetime.

    Fact: The cost of a four year college education, with tuition, room, board, and clothing allowance is a minimum of 6 figures and often in the multiple 6 figures. The “exploited” athletes in question get free rides.

    Fact: College athletes have a leg up in the post-graduate job market. Ex-athletes from Ivy League universities earn significantly more than do non-athlete graduates, despite the former having lower grade point averages than the latter. Athletics teaches teamwork, discipline, time management, ability to deal with defeat and adversity, ability to “play hurt,” and so many other things of direct relevance and value to post-college life.

    Fact: The vast majority of the athletes do it for the love of the game, no matter what level at which they compete.

    Fact: At schools like Louisville and Florida and Duke and Ohio State (i.e. the ones with the most highly “exploited” athletes), the football and basketball programs typically produce revenue which support student-athlete sports such as cross country, soccer, swimming, softball, crew, etc.

    Fact: Both athletes and their parents know in advance what they are getting in for, voluntarily choose to do it, and they are not the ones clamoring for change. The ones clamoring for change are typically do gooder non-athletes who couldn’t carry the gym bags of the “exploited” student athletes.

    – Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA

  28. mirror says:

    This is a sincere question for you, Brian. Do you know or believe that D1 athletes who graduate with a degree based on some “lower” standards are using those degrees under false pretenses in order to take jobs from persons with degrees based on “higher” standards?

    And is your experience telling you that those D1 athletes you know who obtain bachelor’s degrees would have been better off getting a job at Target or as a stocker in a supermarket or in the trades, and skipping school all together. Are their degrees really useless? Do they really fail to develop personally and intellectually? (And I’m ignoring the significant percentage of schools that don’t have a different set of standards, but instead only help the the athlete by offering more support)

  29. mirror says:

    I used to see college athletics, and high school athletics for that matter, as something extraneous that could be eliminated, if I paid any attention to it at all. But the truth is, Americans love college athletics. It is part of the culture. The education and the athletics is a cultural package. Many educated nerdy folks of a certain type don’t believe this cultural artifact has value and are driven by a desire to protect “education” from the low-brow element that is “athletics”, but the majority of Americans see it and feel it very differently. If Americans should be denied college athletics in support of the educational mission, why not eliminate spectator sports all together as extraneous or detrimental to the overall societal purpose?

    Young men break bones all the time doing crazy young man shit, so I’m not sure that this guy breaking a bone is really a good driver for this conversation. Will they be taking away this guys scholarship because he’s out for a year?

    In any case, if the objective is to prop up the academic side, a simpler approach is to address graduation rates of incoming athletes, or gpas in classes with majority non athlete participation, or make all scholarships 4 year scholarships contingent on meeting certain non-athletic benchmarks, o something like that. I absolutely hate the idea that you can take away the scholarship of a student/athlete because he didn’t turn out to be as good as you expected. That just seems evil to me. There are quite a few schools giving four year promises now, and I personally know a student who just got a four year baseball scholarship.

  30. Jon Green says:

    Well, first off, as a college student who goes to school with a bunch of student athletes (and as a former student athlete), ouch. Second, sure:

    “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).”

    This isn’t something that’s actually going to be enacted in real life. Then again, this being enacted is about as likely as real academic standards for DI athletes being enforced. Pick your poison.

  31. mirror says:

    If you break it down and look at where the top baseball players come from, a very high percentage have gone to college before drafting. I don’t think D-1 colleges make much money off baseball though. Baseball needs a huge number for place holders to create a stage for the development of the players management actually believe have a legitimate shot. Way better to get a degree or be one year short of a degree, before banging ones head against the wall as a place holder for x number of years. Still, It is far easier to tell who has it and who doesn’t with basketball, and football. X number of years could still turn in to something for a baseball player, but better to do it with a degree already.

  32. BrianG says:

    The same thing should be done for graduate students who perform academic labor. I was part of a group of graduate students who attempted to unionize at UVA in the mid 1980s. Just like athletes, institutions would say, “You’re not an employee, you are a student.” while they screwed us blind. Let’s face it colleges and universities are a big business.

  33. rerutled says:

    Before colleges and Universities pay their athletes, they would do away with the sport. And not for reasons of sour grapes. When they do not pay athletes, then sports have a loincloth of cover of being part of the “educational mission” – giving students the opportunity to excel in a physical activity. Once they start paying students, that loincloth is gone, and the entire enterprise is exposed as a naked commercial activity, which the college has no mission justification for at all (they could open a candy stores and make millions — but they don’t, because that’s not their mission).

  34. sherman says:

    I’d add hockey to baseball. Most NHL players have spent time in the minor leagues and juniors. The league is not dependent on colleges nearly to the extent as football/baseball.

  35. SkippyFlipjack says:

    The title of the post is odd — who’s saying that NCAA athletics are just “for fun”? Why was that in quotes? I agree that the system is broken and needs big changes, but the standard argument is that NCAA athletes get a free education (not to mention even getting admission to top schools) plus the healthy mind and body that athletics promote in exchange for whatever expenses the universities incur and whatever benefits they reap, not that they’re “for fun”. Intramural athletics are “for fun”; Division I athletics, while they might be fun, aren’t “just for fun”.

    Also, you may not know that signing a four-year contract would be a significant change in that schools currently offer scholarships year-to-year; they’re renewed each year at the school’s discretion. It’s not a fair practice, but it’s what’s in place now.

  36. sherman says:

    Big time college sports is a business, as you demonstrate, and the employees should receive just compensation.

    Ohio State football tickets will be $79 this year (even for a game against a lower level FCS school), and one or two premium games each year might cost as much as $175. The stadium seats 108,000, much more than pro stadiums. The official reason is that football/basketball revenue supports other non-revenue sports. The economics just don’t make sense.

    I like sports, and like Div III where you are actually supporting a sport, not a business. Attended a Capital U game where they won on a last second fall away 3-pointer, while across town thousands of people were fighting traffic and paying lots of money to see OSU beat someone in a 30 point yawner.

  37. Mirror says:

    From a parent’s perspective and from a reality perspective, your proposal is ridiculous on its face if your intent is to promote athlete education. If you delink high school and college by a four year time period, a much much smaller percentage would get back into school or finish school. Your system would FORCE them to be athletes first, students second. Baseball includes education support for players who draft out of high school, but, even though most players top out in the low minor leagues without ever making a meaningful salary, only a small percentage of those players take advantage of the educational money available to them. It is just too hard to get back on track academically. Parents know this. Also, you are assuming that the athletes would prefer not to study, but even for the most school averse the reality is almost always more complex. Many, if not most, families, and the players, see the student/athletes being forced to learn better time management and study habits in order to play as a plus that will make them more successful later in life.

    Finally, the salary potential you are using as the basis for your analysis is such an outlier relative to the number of students with pro potential playing division one basketball that your article comes across more as a throw away filler piece for the style section than a serious analysis. This is doubly true if you look at the enormous size of the college football rosters.

    There are tough questions to be asked about money and big time college sports, but your approach seems more like concern trolling which is really biased against student/athletes.

    This article shows a lack of real life knowledge and experience, and a lack of knowledge of the subject at hand.

  38. nicho says:

    Baseball is the only sport that pays its minor-league players (although not very much). The other sports use college teams as minor leagues. And the colleges rake in millions and millions of dollars from the “sports,” which is why they’re willing to turn a blind eye to things like child rape.

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