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This is a simple answer to a very complex question, but I have to say: Absolutely not. That's my final answer, Regis.
Let me give you three reasons why it's a terrible idea to pay college athletes:
1. The vast majority of college athletes are not at school to parlay their sport into a money making enterprise, so it's not really a relevant issue.
2. The average college athletic department loses enough money already.
3. College athletes are already paid for their work.
The big business of sport
When we talk about college sports, we immediately think of glitzy uniforms, rabid spectators, big-league advertisers, and national television audiences. With various mega sponsors like FedEx (NYSE: FDX ) , PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP ) , Citigroup (NYSE: C ) , Allstate (NYSE: ALL ) , and Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS ) , the Bowl Championship Series is, perhaps, the finest example of this stereotype around. Heck, look no further than the Geico halftime report to confirm that the distinction between the NCAA marketing machine and any major professional sport is not at all obvious. It's all one giant sales campaign.
This, however, is not the real NCAA; it's just it's highly profitable cousin. In fact, the picture painted above completely misrepresents college sports for what they mostly are. As a former collegiate athlete involved in a sport that had approximately zero attention paid to it (I was a heavyweight rower), I can safely say that most college sports are a lot more about what a player gives up to participate versus what he can expect to get in return. For most of us who competed in relative obscurity, it's so far away from big business, it's laughable.
The math that supports this point is fairly overwhelming. There are roughly 400,000 athletes competing in NCAA sports today. Between the MLB farm system, the NFL, the NHL, and the NBA, there are only 2,000 or so new positions available every year in the majors. Throw in a few, alternative professional opportunities and, let's say, there are 3,000 available professional positions every year. Of the 100,000 college athletes that graduate every year, perhaps an extremely generous 2.5% go on to become pros in their given field.
When you boil it all down, college sports are really about getting a good education and doing what you love to do for just a few more years before you have to knock it off and get a real job. So, before we consider anything else, why should anyone reform a system and attempt to cater to a tiny minority when it is generally working for the other 97%? If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Show me the money
If the average college athletic department delivered some kind of regular revenue boon to the university that financed it, I might be somewhat inclined to support a compensation plan for the athletes that fueled it. I might even be willing to swallow my philosophical concerns about maintaining the sanctity of amateur athletics. Fortunately, this is not much of an issue. For the vast majority of schools (regardless of division), athletic programs are loss centers. College sports equal big business? Not really. Most universities have to work to keep them alive.
According to the NCAA, in 2008, a mere 25 schools reported net positive athletic department revenues. From 2003-2008, only 18 schools consecutively reported positive net revenues. Based on this data alone, is a compensation structure really even necessary? What money is there to share?
Even in the only two collegiate sports where profitability is a more realistic expectation (football and men's basketball), only about 55% of teams have been able to sustain profitable teams over five-year periods (this is in the premier, Division I-A, bowl-eligible group -- the percentage would be much lower if it included all universities). Unimpressive, isn't it? A closer examination of the numbers reveals that the average football team (in the premier, bowl eligible division mind you -- this is the best of the best) only nets out about $4.2 million annually, while the average basketball team delivers only $1.1 million to the bottom line. This is not a whole lot of money. The rest of the so-called big sports, including ice hockey and baseball, are perennial money-losers.
This all makes a person wonder why this discussion is even on the table to begin with. While universities clearly derive some indirect benefit from having strong athletic departments, these departments and their athletes are generally not related to any kind of widespread money-making enterprise, directly at least. Why pay for it? I really have no idea.
You can't talk about college sports without considering the outliers, the schools that are making a killing selling their teams to the masses. The NCAA failed to disclose which specific school it was (I have my guesses), but some school's football team grossed about $73 million in 2008 and took home about $46 million of that, which is simply ridiculous. One basketball team grossed about $24 million and netted about $9 million, a similarly impressive figure. Do a little math here and that number equates to about $1.1 million in revenue per roster spot on the football team and about $1.8 million per player on that basketball team. Now, that's some serious money-making ability. So the question is: Do these players deserve to be paid?
No, the logic that trumps all others is this: College athletes are already paid for their work. Think about it. Players perform on the field and, in return, they receive scholarships, top coaching, alumni support and various other opportunities, including exposure on a national level. The value of the scholarship alone is something worth serious consideration, but there's a lot more than that.
Serious athletes that attend schools with premier athletic programs (University of Florida, University of Southern California, etc.) should consider their contribution to the school "tuition" for which they receive world-class coaching, a chance to market their brand on a national level, and a valuable education in big business sports. These athletes are "renting" the university's high-quality distribution channels to get noticed. Let us not forget this is precisely what some of these athletes are there for -- to get bid up in the selection process. As far I can tell, the exchange of services is pretty damn equitable.
The Foolish bottom line
So that's it. Forget about the mind boggling complexities of implementing such a system and the unhappiness it would be likely to cause, for a number of reasons (several of which have not been captured here), the college athlete is best left unpaid. No doubt about it.
You've heard from me. Now, I'd like to know what I've missed. It's time to hear from you. What do you think colleges should do? Chime in below with your thoughts.