I had occasion last week to visit my alma mater, Texas A&M University, to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band, in which I marched. The days were filled with old friends, old stories, and meeting with legions of Aggies past, present, and future.
As part of the activities, we were offered a tour of the newest addition to Kyle Field, now the largest stadium in the state of Texas. Opulent does not begin to describe it. The Hall of Champions, luxury suites, amenities, training facilities, locker rooms, etc., are truly superb. A look to the west at the baseball field, track facilities, soccer field, basketball arena, etc., will find equally magnificent facilities. Many of these facilities, including the newest addition to Kyle Field, were built mostly with private money, but they really show how much money flows through college athletics.
While I could use any university as an example, the numbers from Texas A&M are a good example. Last year, Texas A&M Athletics took in $212.4 million in revenue against $165.8 million in expenses, resulting in a 22% profit of $46.6 million. Many private companies would be delighted to see such positive financial performance. On any given home football game day, 60,000-plus people flood into town. They stay at hotels, eat at restaurants, buy merchandise, rent cars, and have a staggering economic impact on the little city. Jimbo Fisher, the football head coach, is being paid $75 million over 10 years. The media companies make millions broadcasting the games on television and radio. Companies like Nike, Adidas, and Under Armor make millions selling athletic gear with college logos on them.
Everybody is making money — big money — in college athletics except the athletes playing the games. That needs to change.
For years, it has been forbidden for college athletes to earn or accept money. The rationale is that the purpose of college athletics is to be an extracurricular activity that attracts kids to college and provides some of those kids with access to higher education through scholarships. If college athletes can earn money for playing a sport, then they blur into professional athletes competing for a school instead of an amateur college kid just playing while he or she is earning a degree. Such notions seem almost quaint when college sports has become a multibillion-dollar industry.
While much of the attention is focused on the tiny number of high-profile athletes who are destined for national fame in professional leagues, the vast majority of college athletes do not fit that mold. In all of Division I athletics, only 69% of athletes receive some kind of scholarship, and a smaller percentage receives a full scholarship. Even then, the scholarship does not cover expenses outside of school. For athletes from financially disadvantaged backgrounds, the prohibition from being able to earn money if they play a sport might keep them from playing the sport at all.
Furthermore, only a handful of college athletes will ever go on to compete at a professional level, and only some sports even have a professional league where athletes can earn good money. Most college football, baseball, basketball, and hockey players never make it to the pros, and the average track, volleyball, or lacrosse player will never be able to earn a living competing in their sport.
College athletes are adults. It is fundamentally unjust for thousands of people to make money off of their talent while they are prohibited from doing so. This is especially true considering that the athlete is assuming all of the risk. How many times, for example, has a star college athlete destined for the pros suffered a career-ending injury before they were ever able to earn a single dollar for all of their work and talent?
Whether universities should actually pay athletes a salary outside of scholarships is certainly questionable. Universities are not in the business of sports and public universities, in particular, should not use tax dollars to pay athletes. But if a local car dealership, law firm, or restaurant wants to pay a prominent college athlete to use their likeness in their advertising, why should that be prohibited? Who is harmed by that transaction? Nobody.
Several states and the NCAA are already moving to allow college athletes to earn money for themselves as they are earning money for everyone else. Wisconsin should be the next state to do so.
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