Paying for College Football: Time for a change or do players get enough?

Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports   Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports   Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports   Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports /

College football players help bring in millions upon millions of dollars to their schools, conferences and the NCAA. So why are they left out of the money?

This isn’t going to be a whiny, moaning, cry for college football players to be millionaires just because they happen to put on a helmet and pads. It is going to be a hard look at how the system is treating these so-called “student-athletes” and whether or not they are receiving their fair share of what they create for the schools.

You’re an average college student on scholarship and other financial aid. Aside from having some pizza money and probably needing to bum rides from the one person on your dormitory floor who owns a car, life isn’t all that bad. You go to your few classes a day, do some studying, and then the rest of your day is pretty much your own.

Weekends? They’re spent heading home to do laundry, partying with old friends, and probably watching some of your college classmates playing football on television.

It’s the plight of those football players – and other college athletes – which needs to be examined.

While you’re watching them pound the snot out of each other and work their way into multi-million dollar contracts (or so the image has been portrayed), they’re displaying in a few hours on a Saturday what they’ve worked unbelievably hard to try and perfect during the week.

So should they be paid for all that hard work, or are they no different than most students?

The first thing that must be done is to recognize that not all college football players (or athletes in other revenue-generating sports) are on scholarship, and certainly not all of them are bound for NFL glory on Sundays once their days on campus are over.

There are walk-on players – guys who just love the sport and want to play, and who are willing to be a part of the team without any financial aid in the form of scholarships. There are also players on partial scholarships, as well as full scholarships, and then a handful who are actually getting the “free ride” – a term many like to throw around quite loosely.

Partial scholarships are just that – a partial payment of the tuition due, and nothing more. The balance of the tuition, room, and board, and everything else required of a college student is his responsibility to cover, whether it be through grants, student loans, or (in rare cases) family.

Full scholarships do cover the tuition expenses, but they don’t always cover any out-of-state fees which may apply or other expenses as mentioned above. They are simply a tuition reimbursement.

Obviously, schools and their athletic departments have other resources besides scholarships, and so out-of-state waivers, private grants and scholarships, and other monies can be found to cover the room, board, books, fees, etc for athletes they feel are worth the price. Those are the chosen few free ride players.

If Joey football player signs a helmet and gets any cash for it, he is again threatened with suspension, loss of scholarship or eligibility nullification by the governing body of college sports

What the NCAA has been looking hard at and has begun to implement is full “cost of attendance” stipends for scholarship athletes – a way to pay for all the day-to-day living expenses for a college student without necessarily “paying” them to play for the school. It’s a fine line, but one that needs to be explored.

You may ask, “Why should these football players be treated any differently than most students who find a way to survive on whatever financial aid they are given?”  The simple answer is, football players (and other athletes) are not treated like average students.

Football players must attend a full load of classes just like every other student, but after class, while Joe business major heads for the dorm, some Doritos and a nap, Joey football player heads to the athletic complex for film study, practices, mandatory meetings, workouts, injury rehab, more practices…and a nap.

Joe business major can take a part-time job on or off campus to help keep his pockets full of binge night cash (for whatever it is he chooses to binge upon), while any part-time job for Joey football player is verboten by the NCAA if he wants to keep his eligibility.

If Janie art major paints something in class, and wants to sell it for a hundred bucks at the student union, no one bats an eye, but if Joey football player signs a helmet and gets any cash for it, he is again threatened with suspension, loss of scholarship, or eligibility nullification by the governing body of college sports – something former Georgia running back Todd Gurley discovered in a painful way via his mid-season suspension in 2014.

All of this goes on while Joey football player and his colleagues display their talents on the field and help their school and the overbearing NCAA rake in millions of dollars, which is subsequently divided among the conferences and schools like something out of an episode of the Sopranos.

Now every football player – star or reserve, full ride or walk-on – does receive some extra benefits which many don’t think (or talk) about. These are things which can be taken for granted, and even become exploitative at some schools.

The football team has full access to what amounts to complete health club facilities. Some – like the newer facilities at schools such as Alabama, Washington State or Oregon – are like a gym-Xanadu, with equipment and staffing that put some posh health clubs to shame. But even if the gym is just average, there is a value attached to it.

Average U.S. annual health club cost – $700 (StatisticBrain)

Members of the team also have access to personal trainers, who work with them on a diet and workout regimen and help them get the most out of their bodies. While they all may not take advantage of it, the opportunity (and value) is there.

Average U.S. annual personal trainer cost – Approx. $2000  (WebMD)

Football players also have a medical staff hired by the university to watch out for their health. This is above and beyond what they’d receive from the school’s normal healthcare clinic. These are doctors and specialists who are on call to help these kids stay fit to play (although, the coverage does not continue for voluntary sessions, such as the summer).

Average U.S. healthcare cost – $3025 up to 21-yrs old (ValuePenguin)

Right there we’ve tallied up $5,725 a year that doesn’t have to come out of the pockets of these players. However, the costs involved can easily offset those benefits, especially for a player who isn’t on a full ride or scholarship.

Here are some 2015-16 figures of the cost of a college education according to /

The average annual rental or on-campus housing & food cost comes to $10,00-12,000 per year. There are people in the working world who barely make that much in a single year, then you tack on an annual cost for books and required supplies $4,300 per year, and you’ve almost hit an annual salary for many Americans.

All of this is after tuition costs, by the way.

So if you add it up, the few students at a four-year state university who are getting that “full ride” and don’t have to come out of pocket or scrape together money for any of their college expenses are getting the equivalent value of approximately $25,000 per year out of their financial aid ($40,000 if they were an out-of-state student).

If they opt for a private school such as Notre Dame, then those figures jump up significantly.

There is something to be said for the value students get with all of this, but even at the highest average of $60,000 per year at a 4-year private non-profit institution, there is still a huge fissure between the value these athletes receive and the income they help generate for the school.

The money is going somewhere – millions of dollars of it – and the athletes who are at the core of its intake aren’t seeing their fair share. The news that the NCAA nearly topped $1 billion in revenue during the 2014-15 season while still staunchly refusing to directly pay athletes caused some – including Florida cornerback Jalen Tabor – to cry out that the NCAA was simply overseeing a modern form of slavery.

ESPN personality Jemele Hill argued vehemently against the slavery comparison, saying “Let’s not make that comparison ever because it trivializes a horrific chapter in our history. One whose scars remain fresh.” While Hill’s point is valid and certainly should be taken to heart, the plantation mindset that was there at the start of major college athletic programs is clearly still in play today.

The first executive director of the NCAA in 1951 was Walter Byers, and he took what was a fledgling and somewhat powerless group and created the organization that now controls a near billion dollar enterprise (a non-profit one at that).

But even Mr. Byers could see that his idea had evolved into a something quite twisted, writing in his 1995 memoir, Unsportsmanlike Conduct, that the NCAA is “firmly committed to the neo-plantation belief that the enormous proceeds from games belong to the overseers (the administrators) and supervisors (coaches). The plantation workers performing in the arena may receive only those benefits authorized by the overseers.”

At the bottom of the plantation, you have the athletes – sweating, grunting, working their tails off for essentially a roof over their head and a few square meals a day. While certainly residing in more swanky accommodations than an 18th-century indentured servant, the athletes are truly providing a lot more value for the schools than they are receiving in return. They give their all for the hope of breaking into the professional ranks while the coaches, school administrators, and NCAA horde the spoils of the athlete’s hard work.

Jim Crow on college campuses? Pretty much.

On top of that, the football and basketball players are supporting athletes in virtually every other sport offered by most big schools. For example, Kristi Dosh – author of the book, Saturday Millionaires – wrote that at Ohio State University in the 2014-15 school year, every sport other than football and basketball operated at a loss, meaning the profits from those two sports carried everything from baseball to wrestling on their backs.

In other words, if you’re at Ohio State on a track scholarship, send a thank you card to the football and basketball teams.

Opulent buildings, eye-popping facilities, and stadiums that rival the Roman Coliseum – all paid for with the blood, sweat and tears of the football players, who are lucky enough to get to use such facilities for the few short years they are in attendance at the school.

So why has the thought of paying these kids become such a sticking point for the NCAA and such a shameful thought for fans?

As for the fans, it really has become systemic brainwashing, with the NCAA and those in power making sure that the average person really believes their weak borscht about amateurism and “protecting” the players from greedy, unethical agents.

“I hate to say this, but how are [agents] any better than a pimp?” Alabama football coach Nick Saban stated during a 2010 press conference – railing against agents having what the NCAA construes as improper contact with student-athletes.

And that’s where we come to the crux of the problem. That term.


The very term student-athlete denies any value of their labor and halts the opportunity to fully compete in the economic marketplace. The NCAA has written and enforced rules that allow its member institutions to limit the economic opportunities available to college athletes and to increase the profits of their well-formed cartel.

While the NCAA supposedly limits the amount of time athletes can spend participating each week, you can find loopholes within the loopholes of the rules designed to supposedly protect the players.

An example was cited by Sports Illustrated in their review of former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter‘s testimony before the National Labor Relations Board with attorney John Adam:

"Colter, who was completing his final two courses while rehabbing his injured ankle and training for the draft in Bradenton, Fla., flew in to testify first. He said he sometimes spent 50 or 60 hours a week with the team, and he needed the team’s approval to do mundane things such as move out of the dorm into an off-campus apartment.Adam walked Colter through the itinerary for the Wildcats’ Nov. 10, 2012, game at Michigan. With more than 10 hours of travel, a four-hour football game and hours more of meetings and team meals, the trip required nearly 24 hours with the team, which seemed to exceed NCAA’s limit on sports participation to 20 hours each week. But the NCAA, it turned out, had a loophole in this arithmetic: Time related to a game event—travel, play, team meetings and everything else—counted for only three hours against the cap."

Why is this allowed to continue? Because – as pointed out earlier – it supposedly benefits the students. The NCAA created the term “student-athlete” themselves, and have purported a grand mythology that college athletes who are allowed to financially profit from their talents and abilities cannot focus on their real priority…

An all-important, quality education.

This illusion of protection (as the NCAA loves to flaunt) is viewed as a type of paternalism, which causes those on the outside looking in to believe that what goes on is truly moral and just. The NCAA and the institutions which it governs have essentially eliminated the competition, becoming a monopoly in their own time, making sure that players, agents and anyone else who might become a threat to their profitability are either kept in their service or out of reach.

When players at Northwestern University attempted to form a union in 2014, their efforts were met with swiftly with heavy-handed opposition from the National Labor Relations Board, who stated that a union of college athletes would “upset stability in labor relations”.

Would it? Or would it simply reveal the ugly truth of how these players are exploited by the NCAA?

There’s no easy answer because every situation is different. While football is the ultimate team sport, a third team offensive guard who never sees the field and has no illusions of playing in the NFL doesn’t feel quite as plundered as the All-American quarterback who becomes a huge reason for the team’s success. In that sense, making any proposed payments to players seem fair and equitable might appear impossible.

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 4.51.34 PM
NCAA President Mark Emmert – Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports /

The idea of dangling the carrot of a trust fund that can only be unlocked upon a player’s graduation has been tossed around, but does that potential lump sum outweigh the risk of possible career-threatening or ending injuries by staying in school longer? Especially when we know that a portion of these players have no intention of finishing school. College football is merely their NFL audition.

The fact is that directly paying these players a portion of what is earned from their work would essentially turn college football into a developmental league for the NFL (more so than it already is), and players who weren’t on that track might never have the opportunity to compete at the college level. If what we want is to see college sports turn into professional leagues with no real attachment to the schools, then paying these players set amounts of money is the way to get there.

That may be a rabbit hole we don’t want to travel.

Rather than looking at direct payment, there should be an exploration of relaxing or eliminating restrictions on players making a profit from their own creation (i.e., their likeness) and preventing those who could profit by having an agent from hiring one. Allow players to profit from the sale of jerseys, licensed merchandise, and video games. Bring dollars that are made as a direct result of their work into their lives to help support families.

To restrict how these players live and earn when the work they do keeps coaches like Nick Saban sitting at the top of the food chain in terms of pay for state employees is absurd.

The value that scholarship players receive in terms of housing, food, facilities, and educational opportunities can’t be overlooked, but it has to be supplemented so that the incredible profits made by the NCAA and its member institutions don’t belittle the work done by the athletes.