The Difficulty of Pay to Play

Compensating college athletes would open a Pandora’s box of trouble for schools, NCAA
illustration by Tony Healey
Chris Price is an award-winning journalist and public relations principal. When he’s not writing, he’s avid about music, the outdoors, and Saints, Ole Miss and Chelsea football. Price also authors the Friday Sports Column at


There is a growing argument across the nation that college athletes should be compensated for their play. The issue was raised again earlier this college basketball season when Duke University’s Zion Williamson, the expected top overall draft pick in the coming NBA draft, injured his knee after his shoe split at the sole and he slid to the ground in pain. Luckily for Williamson, the injury was minor and will not affect his draft status. But what if a college player with professional potential were catastrophically injured and their athletic career ended, causing them to miss out on the opportunity to play for big bucks?

As of now, athletes are allowed to receive funds for tuition, books, room and board, and that’s about it. Only a handful of college players, mainly in football and men’s basketball, get full scholarships. The vast majority of college athletes get partial scholarships. With academic and athletic demands, many players can’t get part-time work. When they do, athletes’ employment is highly regulated by the NCAA because players have previously been given “jobs” with no work requirements.

Those in favor of paying athletes sometimes make the claim that college athletics are a billion-dollar-industry and that athletic programs bring universities and colleges millions of dollars from merchandise, broadcast contracts and tickets for games. While that may be the case for a few schools with historically strong athletic programs, the number of institutions profiting from their athletic programs is slim.

According to a 2013 NCAA study of athletic department budgets, only 20 schools out of the then-124 in the Football Bowl Subdivision had revenue that exceeded expenses. According to the report, the average loss among the Power 5 conferences was $2.3 million. At all other FBS schools, it was $17.6 million.

Now it’s possible that the number of profiting schools may be artificially low due to athletic programs that try to zero out their annual ledgers by investing in facilities and paying coaches extremely well. But it is believable that the vast majority of schools at the top level of NCAA competition — not to mention those at the lower levels — are not making enough to be self-funded, much less pay players.

Several athletic programs require financial assistance from the school or through booster programs and athletic foundations. Depending on the culture of the school, that could mean vast differences in the participation and effectiveness of the sponsoring organizations’ financial support — a comparison can easily be made between LSU’s Tiger Athletic Foundation and the Tulane Athletics Fund.

Another danger in paying college players is that there is no way to ensure equality across the board from school to school, conference to conference, or player to player. If schools are allowed to pay players, it could create a major schism between the handful of programs that have the funds to separate themselves as elite sports schools.

Jersey sales are often dominated by the star players. While it’s easy to say a popular player’s exploits drive sales of merchandise with their name or image on it and they should be paid for it, what can the walk-on who is used in practice but never sees the field in an actual game expect to take home for their effort? How would schools compensate players who wear an honorary or legacy number, like No. 7 or 18 at LSU, awarded to outstanding seniors or elite playmakers? Different levels of pay for different players would drive a wedge between skilled players and others.

There are also disparities between sports. Basketball players can join the NBA after one year of college, while football players have to play three years of college ball before they can play in the NFL. These rules are unequal and seem arbitrary.

While it would fundamentally change the nation’s sports landscape, market forces seem to say there are openings for minor professional leagues – like the NBA’s G League or the new Alliance of American Football or the XFL coming in 2020 — to accept athletes not interested in going to college. It works for baseball, so why not other sports? While the addition of minor professional leagues might impact college athletics financially, it would allow schools to return to their original focus, education, and let those with their eye on the ball freely pursue their dreams without getting caught up in the red tape of college athletics.