Should College Athletes Get Paid? (Spoiler: Yes, They Should)

April 6, 2021

What’s crazier: No. 15-seed Oral Roberts advancing to the Sweet 16 or projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft Cade Cunningham of Oklahoma State not seeing a dime while the NCAA Tournament generates roughly $800 million of the association’s $1.1 billion revenue?

March Madness, indeed.

The argument over whether college athletes should get paid has become more prominent over the past several years, especially around tournament time. Looking at college hoops as a prime example, the players generate a ton of money for their schools, the NCAA, and even gamblers—pretty much everyone gets a cut except them. 

In addition to generating money and exposure for their schools, college athletes are putting their futures at stake with a potential injury. Playing is work, and it pulls them away from their academics. Despite complications around secondary sports—not every sport generates as much revenue as college basketball and football—and salary determination, college athletes deserve to get paid.

Players can’t capitalize on their likeness

Case in point, EA Sports is reviving its popular college football game, but it’s eliminated “NCAA” from the title and won’t include real players. The game was discontinued in 2013 following a class-action lawsuit by college players. 

And players who take handouts or bribes are subject to punishment. See Johnny Manziel’s half-game suspension in 2013 over a report that the then-Texas A&M quarterback received payments for his autograph, even though an NCAA statement announcing the ban said there was no evidence Johnny Football made money from his John Hancock. 

Most student-athletes don’t go pro

Most college athletes won’t wind up like Cunningham with a guaranteed contract and probable sponsorship deals down the line. As the NCAA itself says: “There are over 480,000 student-athletes, and most of us go pro in something other than sports.”

In fact, fewer than 2% of NCAA student-athletes go on to become professional athletes. And among those, even fewer will make that “set-for-life” kind of money. The average NBA career, for example, lasts just under five seasons. The average NBA salary was about $7 million during the 2019-2020 season. So, the average NBA player makes about $35,000,000 over the course of their career. 

That sounds massive but imagine if you were done working in your mid-20s. The trajectory of the salary of athletes is the opposite of your average career-oriented professional. Generally, athletes make the most amount of money they’ll ever see early in their careers, while we normies generally will make more as we grow in our careers.

Most student athletes don’t get full rides

There’s a myth that athletic scholarships are commonplace. But the reality is only about 1-2% of undergraduate student-athletes in bachelor’s degree programs receive any type of athletic scholarship, according to Fastweb.

There’s an even larger myth that those receiving athletic scholarships are getting full rides. Only a few sports even offer full-ride scholarships, and those are limited in number for each school. In the NCAA, only the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and Division I basketball offer full scholarships for men’s sports. In women’s sports, basketball, gymnastics, tennis, and volleyball offer full rides.

The average athletic scholarship, though, is about $18,000, per data from the NCAA. Meanwhile, the average out-of-state tuition and fees at a public university added up to nearly $22,000 for the 2020-21 academic year, and at private schools those costs were just over $35,000, according to U.S. News. So, many student-athletes will wind up with a fair amount of debt. (Athletes—they’re just like us!) If you’re one of them, you may want to consider debt consolidation. You can use a debt consolidation calculator to get a better sense of if and how you could save money with a loan, especially if you don’t anticipate becoming an NBA star.

The average starting salary for college graduates is about $50,000, according to a recent National Association of Colleges and Employers salary survey. Quite a bit less than the roughly $10 million that Timberwolves’ 2020 No. 1 draft pick Anthony Edwards is making this season—and he only completed one year at the University of Georgia.

So, forgive me for the potentially hot take, but: Let’s start putting money back in the hands of college athletes before they need to start mapping out debt repayment plans before even graduating.

By Casey Musarra

Casey is a reformed sports journalist tackling a new game of financial services writing. Previous bylines include Newsday and Mike Francesa once called her a “great girl.”

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