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Should student athletes be paid?

Matthew Harvey, Multimedia Manager

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On February 20, 2019, the Duke University Blue Devils and University of North Carolina Tar Heels, suited up in their blues and whites to write the latest chapter in one of the most iconic rivalries in basketball history. Former United States President Barrack Obama was among the thousands in attendance. According to ticket vendor StubHub, admission to the biggest night in college basketball so far ranged from $3,005 to $6,506. For a frame of reference, tickets to Duke’s following game (vs. Syracuse University, another conference rival) peaked at $794. This game was special, and not just because of the rivalry— President Obama doesn’t attend every Duke vs. UNC game, and ticket prices for their meetings don’t always start at $3,000. This game was special because of its headliner: Duke’s Zion Williamson.

At 18 years old, Williamson rivals LeBron James, and Kevin Durant, as arguably the most heavily discussed basketball player of any competition level— and of the three, he is the only one that is prohibited from receiving compensation from his name. The events of this game, though, would catapult Williamson past either of the two professionals on any list of trending topics.

Within no more than thirty seconds of the tip-off, Williamson suffers a freak injury as his foot bursts through his shoe causing an unexpected fall resulting in a mild knee sprain. He would not return to the game. This incident reignited the flames of the hot-button debate of whether college players should be paid, as questions arose of how much sense it would make for Zion to finish out his college season even after healing from injury. After all, Zion being picked as the first overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft is all but a foregone conclusion, if the goal of the season was simply to be a #1 pick then mission accomplished.

What many fail to realize, though, is that the goal for most college basketball players is not only to make it pro. In a more broad sense, the purpose of any hooper is to play competitive basketball. In response to NBA Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen’s advice to “Shut it down,” following his injury, Williamson said, “If I wanted to sit out, I wouldn’t have went to college. I came to Duke to play.”

It’s a position that I wholeheartedly agree with, especially as someone who spent my life as a student-athlete up until college. However, as someone who acknowledges the ills of a system that prioritizes the concept of amateurism over the security of its athletes, I can’t in good conscious let Zion be postured as the poster boy for “see, not playing players is fine.”

In the case of basketball, the issue of players being able to enter the NBA draft straight out of high school is often conflated with the issue of paying college players. Defenders of the NCAA’s amateurism guidelines will often point the finger at the NBA’s rule that requires all draft prospects to be one year removed from high school, as the true culprit. While I would agree that the rule should be eliminated, as it is every bit as nonsensical, the NCAA’s amateurism policies are what will ultimately govern the vast majority of post-secondary school basketball players, and athletes of all other NCAA sports as well. This problem is bigger than basketball.

Perhaps the most common argument against paying college athletes is that they are already receiving compensation for their efforts in the form of a full scholarship. For this statement to hold water one of two things would have to be true: full scholarships must only be offered to athletes, or student non-athletes must also be prohibited from making money in their career of choice while enrolled. In reality, neither is the case.

A close friend of mine attends the University of Kansas School of Journalism on a full-tuition scholarship. She is not an athlete. She is also employed by the school as a student researcher, working on research projects for the African American Studies department, in which she minors. In addition to that, she has been paid by numerous publications for freelance journalism. Her scholarship remains intact.

Under the NCAA’s amateurism rules, Zion Williamson— or any student-athlete for that matter— could have their scholarship taken from them if they earn so much as a dime in any way related to the sport that they participate in. Demanding that the NCAA change this rule is simply demanding that the NCAA treat student-athletes just as any other student on a college campus is treated.

Then comes the next challenge: where does the money come from? According to the NCAA’s 2018 Official Financial Report, revenues exceeded $1 billion for the fiscal year ending August 2017. Of that figure, only $103 million went unspent. If that number were divided amongst the approximately 460,000 NCAA athletes, they could each receive only about $228. However, there is a much larger figure of over $560 million that was dealt with the association’s 1,107 member institutions. It is important to note, however, that the NCAA is a non-profit organization completely governed by volunteers who are themselves employed at the schools that make up the association. Taking the averages of these numbers leaves $505,871 per school. If that number were divided evenly amongst the average 415 athletes per school, that would leave $1,218 to be added to that $228 that could all be paid to student-athletes. According to my calculations, $1,400 is greater than $0 and is comparable to the work-study allowance I receive for my work on the school newspaper.

That number only scratches the surface. As I mentioned earlier, my friend at KU also earns money working freelance for publications beyond the school. I do too. Zion, on the other hand, is strictly prohibited from making money on anything basketball related while on scholarship. It would only be fair to allow student-athletes to sign their own sponsorships, or play in professional leagues during the summer, much like I’m allowed to sign a freelancer contract or hold a paid internship at a professional publication.

According to the NCAA “The collegiate model of sports is centered on the fact that those who participate are students first and not professional athletes,” and it is for this reason that their amateurism policies are strictly enforced. I’ll end by speaking on my own experience as a student-journalist. I have navigated spaces amongst journalists who appear regularly on CNN and ESPN and have written for the New York Times, and Forbes. I have worked with them and been paid for my work as well. I have gained invaluable career advice and training from those experiences. Yet here I am, writing for my school newspaper, with an exam coming up in a week, and homework due tomorrow. I am a student first, but those professional experiences have only made me a better student-journalist.

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Should student athletes be paid?