One More Reason to Pay College Athletes

If players were paid, market forces would work against competitive imbalance

  • Share
  • Read Later
Scott Halleran / Getty Images

Texas A&M Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel during a game in College Station, Texas, on April 13, 2013

The latest scandal in college sports involves Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. ESPN has reported that the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner was paid to autograph hundreds of items. If this is true, then Manziel has violated the NCAA rule that prohibits the payment of student athletes. As a consequence, Manziel could be ruled ineligible to play college football.

It seems odd that Manziel could be banned from playing football for earning thousands of dollars. After all, as Michele Steele of ESPN reported last December, schools can earn millions of dollars from one of their players winning the Heisman. If the schools can earn millions, why can’t “Johnny Heisman” take home thousands?

(MORE: Johnny Manziel Could Change the NFL’s Age-Limit Rule)

The NCAA often defends this odd arrangement in the name of competitive balance. If players are paid, the richest schools will end up with all of the top talent. And when that happens, the outcomes of games will be more certain and far less interesting. But the data shows that a small number of schools dominate year after year anyway with the ban in place, according to a 2007 study by economist Jim Peach. For example, in college football from 1950 to 2005, just 10 schools held 45% of all the top-eight slots in the final Associated Press rankings.

Essentially the same story was told in men’s basketball, where 45% of all Final Four spots from 1950 to 2005 again went to just 10 schools. The same pattern held true in baseball, men’s volleyball, women’s basketball, women’s volleyball and softball. Competition is unbalanced because the poorest schools are not competing, and if we apply some basic economics, we can see that the NCAA’s prohibition on paying players is part of the problem.

A competitive market uses prices to allocate resources. But if price increases are not allowed, then nonprice issues will dictate the allocation of resources. To see which nonprice issue matters in college sports, consider the 2013 recruiting class of the men’s basketball team at the University of Kentucky. reports that of the top nine high school recruits, five signed with Kentucky. And Kentucky also added another player ranked in the top 25.

(MORE: Should College Sports Be Banned?)

Kentucky’s recruiting class in 2013 suggest that high school stars are looking at whether or not their college team will win in choosing which school to attend. This choice doesn’t simply reflect a preference for winning over losing. In the NBA draft, academic research shows, players from Final Four teams are 10 times more likely to be chosen than players who did not advance to the Final Four. How does a player increase the odds he can get to the Final Four? Go to teams that recruit other top talents. And who recruits top talents? Teams that historically went to the Final Four. It’s a vicious cycle that helps the top schools remain on top year after year.

If players were paid, market forces would work against this tendency. The University of Kentucky would offer top money to a few recruits, but only five can take the court at any one time. As Kentucky tries to keep adding top talent, the value of each additional player to Kentucky must decline. And consequently, another school — even one with less money — will be able to make an offer that will top what Kentucky would be willing to pay.

Of course, some might lament the intrusion of money into the sanctity of college sports. But the vast sums already going to the schools makes it clear that money has already intruded. If some of this money were to go to the players, the Manziel scandal would be a nonstory. And maybe the NCAA would actually be able to offer a more competitively balanced product.

MORE: College Football Encounters Its Biggest Rival: The Couch


Berri's argument here is essentially a refutation of a theoretical argument one might make against paying athletes. He has simply employed logic to say that because statistics prove that not all the top 10 teams dominate the finals in a variety of fields, paying players will not create significant inequities among the top tier and smaller schools in college athletics. 

At its heart though, this idea is contradictory to the entire essence of college sports, which are and have always been about athletes who love the game and work hard to excel in what they love. Adding a financial aspect to collegiate athletics not only raises the question of which players will be paid the most and how much, but disrupts the tradition that many fans appreciate college athletics for. Collegiate athletes are doing what they love, professional athletes are making a living. This difference is what makes college athletics so exciting for many.


I guess these neanderthals need incentivising - considering they can't write their name in the ground with a stick.

No wonder American college degrees are sold from vendomat machines. 


Simply paying players will not change who Kentucky convinces to play for them.  Kentucky will just have a dozen guys making the maximum allowed. Nothing will change, or it will be worse. The pay system need to encourage top players to spread themselves out to multiple teams. 

A system where they get paid based on how the team is ranked at the of the season and how they rank on their team would work. The top player on the top team gets the most money whether he is the best player in the country or not. Then, we have to make it so that the top player on the 21st ranked team gets more than the second best player on teams ranked 11 through 20 and more than the third ranked player on teams ranked 1 through 10.  Follow that logic and top player on the 51st ranked team gets more than the 6th man on the top team, but less than 5th ranked player. 


College sports has no (not literally zero, but far less) revenue if alumni and current students are not buying the tickets, watching the game from home, buying merchandise, etc. 

If I were a student at a popular football or basketball school (which I was in my hay day), I would not be pleased about not only paying my tuition, but having to pay for student tickets to the games and the merchandise to wear to the game, which would contribute to the players salary. So in essence, I'm putting myself and that player through school, plus footing a luxurious lifestyle for them, while living in a small dorm room somewhere.

If you want to pay them, student tickets to the games should be free, see how much revenue they make then,  just how much would their salary would be?

Why not have a minor league like in baseball. A student athlete has the choice to go to college for free, play football, get an education and prepare for the NFL. Or, they can go straight to the minor leagues (barring any age or college requirements) and make a salary there. But I think it might be worth googling the average salary of a minor league baseball player, minus bonus... Plus no famous college to back you and essentially give you free marketing and publicity. I have a feeling we'd find that many would go the college route still...


What do you men by the 'sanctity of college sports'   Money is the has always been the God of college of sports...where does Sanctity come from?   There is none. A player who violates the rules should not have the media making excuses. Change the rules.


While we're at it can we just give all students a 4.0 gpa, you know,   to level the playing field?

mrbomb13 1 Like

What an absurd article!!

For one thing, college athletes are considered 'amateur athletes.'  When they start getting paid, they're technically, 'professionals.'  That will turn the notion of 'amateurism' on its head.

Secondly, while recruited to play sports, college athletes are still students, and therefore still responsible for their classroom learning.  Getting paid to play (literally) will result in less time being dedicated to academics.  That will hurt those athletes in the long run, especially when they are looking for jobs outside of the sports world.

Third, since a college is first and foremost an academic institution, why would they want to pay athletes for their sports ability, and not their intellectual capabilities?  With tuitions so high (and getting higher), it's frivolous to spend any more money athletics and the many athletes who's career won't last beyond graduation.


@mrbomb13 As a current student I can attest that these "student athletes" do not attend class, rather their school fudges the grades to ensure their players can play.  They are professionals in every sense of the word except pay.  They practice everyday, travel, and bring in lots of publicity and revenue to their universities.

The idea that athletes are amateurs is just as absurd as you think this article is. These "amateurs" spend a 90% of their time practicing, weight training, etc. and 10% of their time partying.

Third, who cares whether a school is an academic institution first? Most schools make most of their money through research anyways. If anything, schools are research institutions not academic institutions for teaching students.  Even so, without these athletic programs, the academic institutions would not exist in the first place because of the money athletics brings to the university.

The point is that it is wrong to force all universities to have a price ceiling. It's collusion to get free labor.

swikes21 1 Like

I have enough of an issue with the number of athletes who receive athletic scholarships but who, scholastically, would never be accepted at a University.   I'm all for eliminating the influence of sports on Universities.  One only needs to look at Penn State to see but one of the many problems that arise from giving athletes, coaches and athletics departments some sort of god like stature.  

A significant number of these athletes develop attitudes that make them believe they are above the rules, the law and any moral responsibility.   Not all, but too many for my liking.  They want to be paid?  Then play semi pro ball and stay the hell out of University.  Let a scholastically deserving student have the seat.  


@swikes21 Those "athletes with attitudes" happen to bring in enough revenue at many schools to fund academic institutions. I thank our football players everyday for bringing in millions of dollars so that I can receive some financial aid and not come away with significant amounts of student debt.


 So does the author propose paying ALL college athletes, or just those on football or basketball?  Baseball?  Ice hockey? Track? Swimming?  Lacrosse?  Field Hockey?  Soccer?  Golf?  Tennis?  

   Do tell.


@CocoPazzo Ya  pay them on a scale based on the income they generate for the school.. Football players would be paid on the gate they bring in, as would say fencers..  Next  question???


@DougBruce @CocoPazzo It's actually more complicated than that, fencers actually lose the university money.  The problem is that it is hard to determine how much revenue athletes bring if you include alumni donations.

The only fair way would be to allow scholarships and salaries. Make it a free market just like all other jobs.

DeweySayenoff 2 Like

I don't think I've ever heard a more spurious argument to pay people for something in my life.  The colleges don't compete already so why not pay the "athletes" money to play?  These people already get major money through "scholarships" and other benefits that the average student can never get (like free tutors, and breaks from student offenses because they're players).  They play because that's part of the terms of the scholarship.  And one could argue that undergrads who contribute to a professor's research brings MORE money to the schools than the athletes do.  Does anyone offer to pay THEM?  Hell no.

And to top it off, tuition keeps going up.  I don't want to see tuition going toward paying student athletes to play a game.  They're already paid well enough as it is.

The entire focus of colleges is on the wrong thing.  They're supposed to be learning about the career of their choice and I'm fairly certain that colleges graduate far more people who follow their DEGREE path than their GAME path.  College seems to be used by the wealthy team owners as a personalized means of filtering out the high schoolers so they can pick and choose a few hundred (out of hundreds of thousands) to sit on a bench until they're needed.

What a waste of resources.  And a major waste of money.

Tell you what...  Stop using public colleges to decide what slave you're going to "draft" next season.  Have the professional sports organizations build and maintain "sports centers" where pro wannabes are sent to be honed for the pros.  Sell tickets to the games.  Pay the athletes.  I figure two years worth of playing should give the owners some idea of whether or not they'll be good additions to the team.  They'll be twenty by then.  That's old enough to play professionally. Then pay for a couple of years of vocational school or something.  Truth be told, if you're paying the athletes anyhow, they should consider that to just be a job and let them fend for themselves if they don't get picked up by a pro team.

You know, like real life.


@DeweySayenoff Students who help with a professor's research do get paid. Source: Personal experience.

Second, you may think it is a waste of money, but it shouldn't be outlawed for everyone. The point is, the universities have essentially colluded so that they can get free labor.

CharlestonChu 2 Like

They are paid, in many cases....with scholarships, with special housing deals, with training for a career that will possibly earn them millions of dollars.  Let the NFL start it's own minor league, if they want to pay young athletes.

buffalo.barnes102 2 Like


Oh please! The schools make millions on the backs of these guys. Only a few ever make it to the NFL. This is no longer the 1920's and Jim Thorpe era.


@buffalo.barnes102 @CharlestonChu 

Let's do the math

Out of state tuition $30k-$40k per year as most recruited athletes will not go in-state

Say $750/mo in rent comes to $9000 per year

Throw in $6000 a year for calorie intake because they are given food budgets

Might as well add an underestimated $3000 for top knotch physical trainers and therapists.

That comes out to $48k/yr on the low side. Sounds like a pretty good salary to me for a kid with a high school diploma. The company I work for makes millions off of the work I do too, that's just called business. And when you start paying athletes, it has become business and no longer education, so don't try to play the non-profit card.


@weissdou @buffalo.barnes102 @CharlestonChu A more accurate measurement of the income would not be how much it would cost to get that education, but with the added or lost income because of that education.

That athlete could have started working straight out of high school and actually come away with real cash (you know like dollar bills that you can spend on whatever you want). Or, the athlete can get a free education and have 0 cash.  So athletes forgo 4 years of income for a piece of paper (a degree).  It's probably a good tradeoff in the long run.

However, the athletes that could possibly get paid usually graduate before they get that piece of paper.  The idea that this athlete "made money" in the long run is inaccurate.

Imagine if all of the professional athletes came together and agreed that agents have to do their job for free. It would be illegal for an athlete to pay an agent. (It's the same in principal, the agent makes money for the athlete the same as an athlete makes money for its bigger institution.) That sounds like collusion to me, and that's what the universities created.

I also am quite happy that athletics have become big business. Because of this business, students don't have to take out even larger loans than they already do.


@weissdou @buffalo.barnes102 @CharlestonChu 

Does your company have 12 employees and are you one of them? If your company depends on 12 employees to generate millions and you are one of them and you are paid 40-50K then you should not be working for that company. Furthermore, a high school diploma has nothing to do with the money they should make. Their reimbursement should depend on how much profit they generate. Is it fair that schools make millions and players get a minute fraction in return? I don't think so. 

CSU81991 1 Like

@weissdou @buffalo.barnes102 @CharlestonChu @Weiss: Former D1 athlete (baseball) here. Scholarships are year-to-year and insurance only covers that year and both can be cut at anytime (one year after for insurance.) Long term injuries (bane of a football player's existence) are NOT covered unless a school chooses to. So, a player makes schools money in any number of ways, and then is injured (serious long term that needs daily rehab or just as bad nerve damage, etc) but is not taken cafe of more than a year after leaving school. 

Also, the 20hr per week rule for practice and athletic related activities is ignored. Practices, just for baseball, are/were 1-5 Mon-Sat. Weight training was 11:30-12:30 though it bled over as well. Classes ahd to be done by 11 or you're spot on the team gone (that's just baseball, football and basketball, the moneymakers, are different)

Also, athletes, unlike other students (including those on academic scholarship) are not allowed to work during the year b/c of fears of jobs that don't exist but they are paid anyhow. No other students have that requirement. I could go on. The insurance issue is the most disgusting. Injured playing for a school and then not covered but for a year. If injured for a company your insurance covers it (assuming of course business has health insurance offered) and if that runs out there remains workers comp and other avenues. Not so for athletes. 

You are right about trainers, etc. That is a good deal but remember that's generally for injuries and ALL students have a weight room as well and a rec center. 

The true benefit, which is society's fault as a whole, especially fans, is that athletes get put on a pedestal and therefore doors open for them that might not otherwise. But, that has nothing to do with athletes being exploited, that has to do with fans thinking sports teams (college or pro) are theirs, are truly part of the family, etc. Basically, if fans were to actually realize sports are just a game, we wouldn't have this discussion as athletes would be students (as they are in D3 schools, etc) and games would only be with schools nearby. That won't happen b/c fans think sports and athletes as family. Too bad too, b/c that's not healthy

destroyerkahn 1 Like

This is in my opinion the same question as using Performance Enhancing Drugs.  WHat is it that makes us feel compelled to keep sports "clean" (no drugs, no money for "amateurs", etc.).  The only reason for sports is entertainment, and what we, the fans, desire is for better entertainment.  Let 'er rip!  Everyone will be happier - the fans, the owners, the schools, the students, the players.  Stop trying to legislate everything and let things take their natural course!

Balter 6 Like

Those poor college athletes moving on to multi million dollar careers where their money is only trumped by their fame. And to think, while at school, all they get is free everything, a college education, beautiful women and fame at such a young age.

The horror! Surely we can give these poor souls even more to do what they love!


@Balter I would happily encourage my institution to pay college athletes so that my institution could win more games which would mean more money for the university which means better teachers, classrooms, and more financial aid for the students.

If the side effect is giving these "poor" college athletes more of those wonderful things then I'm all for it. It's not a zero sum game.

hank2 5 Like

falcon269 took the words right out of my mouth.  If your a person who is actually trying to argue for or against paying college athletes you are already lost on the real issue here.  Let our colleges and Universities get back to educating our youth.  The organization called the NCAA has highjacked our schools and created this mess.  The NCAA would have you believe that without the revenue from mens football games, bowls,  alumni, etc...the schools would not be able to generate income to maintain the school and other ancillary programs.  I don't believe it for a minute.  Let those individuals who aspire to play professional sports follow a path that leaves our schools out of the picture.   Maybe the NFL can develop it's own farm leagues around the country and leave our schools alone.


@hank2 College isn't about education, it's about the experience. If it was about education we would just go to the library.

Having a great athletic program improves the university experience. Seriously, all of the lectures being taught at universities can be found online these days (,


@hank2 Corruption, like another well known substance, rolls downhill.  Big money pro sports corrupt college programs.  Big money college sports corrupt high school programs.  Here in the Florida Panhandle a promising high school football player, informally promised to the U. of Alabama whatever the heck that means, was declared academically ineligible to play.  In Escambia County, that loosely translates as "cannot read or write."  In some mysterious fashion he and his entire family moved to Alabama, where he was magically eligible again.

So in another ten years, this young man will either be playing in the NFL or will be puzzling over a job application at the local car wash.  It could go either way but we know how the odds fall out.

falcon269 6 Like

Or return colleges and universities into educational institutions. Drop sports. Install intramural activities for all students. Let the pros develop their own farm system. Restore balance and dignity to higher education in America. Save the two-million-dollar salaries paid to the diva-coaches.


PacificSage 1 Like

At the very least, the NCAA should hold any personal royalties from an individual athlete in escrow while they are attending a school, and pay out once they leave the school (for any reason). 

The NCAA has no moral right to market athletes names, jerseys, and likenesses in video games, and not pay a cent to that person.

Who will be the first to win the US Supreme Court case??


@PacificSage This escrow idea I have never heard before, but it sounds incredibly ingenious for the short-term.

I also completely agree on the moral level. It's messed up that the ncaa can collude to get free labor.