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Money & Ethics

Should Athletes Share in Their School's Profits?

There's an ethical imperative to provide fair compensation for all workers whose hard work and talent create profits.

Q. I’m hearing a lot of talk about abandoning the concept of amateur student-athletes and just paying them salaries instead. How do you view all this?

The current system, as overseen by the NCAA, is an ethical mess, riddled with hypocrisy and under-the-table payments. The moral case against it has been argued persuasively for several years by sports commentators Frank Deford and John Feinstein, and more recently by civil rights historian Taylor Branch.

In my view, there is an ethical imperative to provide fair compensation for all workers whose hard work and talent create salable products and, in some cases, large profits. Yes, a free college degree (sometimes earned, sometimes not) is significant compensation for most full-scholarship college athletes, the majority of whom play in low-budget varsity programs and actually get an education to go along with the diploma.

POLL: Should College Athletes Be Compensated?


But for many football and basketball players in big-time programs, a scholarship is in no way proportional to the millions that their colleges and coaches earn from their efforts. These athletes are professional entertainers who aren’t getting paid nearly a fair share of the box-office receipts. If they were allowed by the rules of pro football and basketball to sign contracts at 18, right out of high school, many of them would take (and should take) the guaranteed money and bypass college, where an injury in practice or a game could destroy their later earnings as professional athletes. By contrast, once they turn pro, athletes—whether healthy or injured—can pay for their own college education anytime they wish.

The ethical principle seems clear to me, but implementing some sort of real compensation won’t be easy. Should athletes in all sports share in the overall athletic profits of the college, which are earned mostly by football and basketball? Should the money be held in trust for the athletes (as Feinstein has suggested) and paid to them only if they graduate with legitimate degrees? The debates would be endless.