Paying students to play sports: A bad idea for everyone

Let’s say, for the sake of this column, that you, dear reader, are a currently enrolled college student. If that’s the case, you’re likely strapped for cash and struggling on some level to make ends meet. At the very least, you’re paying close attention to your financial statements, and if you’re like me, you are quite interested in where your money goes each term when that big payment to the school is made. Let’s go whole hog and say the school of your choice is willing to pay you for doing what you love: a real, honest-to-goodness paycheck for doing what you’d happily do for free. For instance, suppose you’re on a college sports team. Wouldn’t it be great to get paid for playing? Samantha Sackos thinks so.

Late last year Sackos, a soccer player at the University of Houston, sued the NCAA and every NCAA Division I member school (of which Portland State is one), claiming the NCAA has violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by not classifying student athletes as employees, as reported by SB Nation. The NCAA responded by saying athletic scholarships are compensation enough, and playing sports is part of the college experience.

I’m not much of a sports fan, but it seems clear that classifying student athletes as employees could have disastrous consequences for students. Athletic scholarships are often the only way gifted players can attend school, and students who would be working for the athletic department wouldn’t be eligible for scholarships. As if we need more barriers to higher education.

Additionally, what would happen to Title IX protections? Currently, Title IX requires both men’s and women’s teams to be treated equally. Should profit-driven sports be immune from market forces that have the potential to shut down less popular sports? Men’s football would benefit, women’s volleyball (and every other unpopular sport), not so much.

Paying college athletes would turn college athletics into professional sport teams—and professional sports teams that don’t turn a profit tend to have very little staying power. To be perfectly honest, college sports—especially men’s football and basketball—often earn money for their schools, even if it’s simply by selling the brand.

State legislatures tend to finance (at whatever dismal amount it is these days) schools with well-performing athletic teams while ignoring those that don’t. Schools with well-known sports programs tend to bring in bigger alumni contributions (cough, University of Oregon, cough). Would these benefits remain if schools paid their athletes? Doubtful.

Personally, I feel that playing sports in school should be a love-of-the-game experience. Like an ad hoc YMCA team, players should play to have fun, coaches should not get paid exorbitant salaries (certainly not earn more than professors), and schools should treat sports as any other student club. Clearly that will never happen, as it seems smelly armpits make money. But let’s not make it worse for students across the board by paying the athletes.

As of this past June, Sackos’ lawsuit, having partially made its way through our legal system, has yet to be ruled upon. There isn’t much indication of which way the case will eventually be decided, but every college student should hope that it will be decided against the plaintiff, as the negative consequences of paying student athletes would far exceed any tangential benefits.