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In the midst of March Madness, let’s revisit paying student-athletes

Both the NCAA and major sportswear companies profit off student-athletes. These student-athletes put their body on the line wearing the gear of multi-billion dollar companies, yet they’re not paid. | Fiona Legesse/The Cougar

March Madness is back, and the CBS networks are working overtime to catch every facet of every game, and Zion Williamson. During this season of joy and heartbreak, the NCAA will be making millions and millions of dollars.

During all this, the players — the spectacle of March Madness — get paid in exposure. The NCAA recently released a video entitled “Student and athlete — a day in the life.” In that video, they paid the actor more than any student-athlete has ever been paid.

The players are not the ones getting the benefits of the multi-million dollar television deal or the millions in merchandise sales. The players are just playing the sport, the very sport they spent years perfecting, bleeding and struggling for. And yet, they are expendable.

A student and an athlete

Sports, inarguably, is one of the hottest industries right now. Coaches, players and sponsors alike are all rolling in money from the line of work.

That is, as long as they are not a college athlete.

Students who attend college as a future professional athlete do not receive compensation. Most college athletes practice for 30 to 40 hours a week, sometimes more, excluding time spent in class. Tie in homework, time to relax and — get this — a part-time job so they have money for themselves, and you’ve got a pretty packed schedule.

By comparison, music majors with scholarships have total freedom to play in locations outside of their university to make extra money. Music majors don’t have the NCAA breathing down their necks expecting them to follow every rule perfectly.

Students on scholarships for other reasons get the full ability to market their skills and expand their influence, yet student-athletes are forced to stay in their lane and work within the arbitrary system provided to them. There is no way for a student-athlete to grow outside of the university unless they want to be hit with a violation from the shadowy NCAA.

Endorsement deals

To put it into perspective, head coaches for college teams make millions each season. Not to mention, while student-athletes are not officially professionals yet, that does not take away from the fact that these individuals are still performing the same tasks as their professional counterparts. There’s still intense physical contact and even life-impending injuries.

Students should at least be compensated for the risk.

Likewise, imagine the advantage for both the students and the university if students could sign endorsement deals with the likes of Nike, Gatorade and any other sports-related firm.

Yet there are still those who argue students should keep their non-profit footing so they can learn effectively. These student-athletes are learning effectively while their head coaches and universities, and not to mention the NCAA, roll in their successes and hard work. All they can earn are scholarships that, more often than not, cover just room, board and tuition.

Players already wear gear sponsored by Nike, Adidas and others. In late February, Duke University freshman forward Zion Williamson lost Nike $1.1 billion in market value by breaking through his shoe early in a game. Think about the absurdity of that: an unpaid college player lost a company more money than some small countries see in a year.

Also, don’t forget, the same companies that can lose billions of dollars because of a broken shoes also rakes in millions of dollars by selling college merchandise. Right now, a Duke basketball jersey costs $120 on the Nike website.

Career-ending injuries

Nothing, though, compares to the possibility that every student-athlete faces of a career-ending injury. Every time a student-athlete steps on a field or a court or a pitch, they face the very real possibility that they could never play the sport again. According to the Pro Athlete Law Group, there are 20,718 football injuries a year. Just football injuries.

That doesn’t include the 23 other sports that comprise the NCAA.

This speaks nothing of the life-damaging or life-ending injuries. There is an unfortunately long list of players whose lives were forever changed because of an accident on the field. There are 841 spinal injuries a year in college football according to the PALG. Spinal injuries aren’t just career-ending, they’re life changing.

Think of how big a deal some sort of pay could help a student-athlete deal with the possibility of never playing their sport again. Of saving for a future where they may not be able to play the sport they’ve worked their whole lives to play.

While the NCAA makes millions on athletes playing for free in college, those athletes face a real risk of an injury ending their career before they can even profit off it.


The top echelon of players in the NCAA have the opportunity to further their athletic endeavors and play professionally, but there’s a catch. In 2005, the NBA created the “One-and Done” rule that changed the draft eligibility age to 19 years old and required prospects be one-year removed from high school.

This does not force prospects to attend college, but it does highly incentivise them to do so. The athlete’s stock can rise tremendously given the amount of exposure the NCAA receives, but trading exposure for hard cash is no trade at all.

High school athletes like Zion Williamson didn’t need the exposure the NCAA has to offer. Thanks to the smart-phone era, many knew who Williamson was before attending Duke. Due to this rule, Williamson lost out on a likely first-round selection and the millions of dollars that comes with it.

As mentioned previously, when Williamson broke through his shoe, he suffered a minor knee injury. But if he had torn his Achilles tendon or suffered an ACL tear, his draft stock would have plummeted and the money he could have made would have decreased significantly.

There is too much money in sports for the NCAA and the major companies that sponsor the NCAA to not begin to consider paying players. As March Madness continues, as the student-athletes put their bodies on the line, remember that an education will not cover everything these athletes go through.

So, while you watch that game-ending shot or the Cinderella Story of the tournament, think of the students on the court. Think of the billion-dollar corporations profiting off every movement, every success, every failure.

Opinion columnist Kristin Chbeir is a psychology senior and can be reached at [email protected].

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