For the top five college sport conferences, known as the Power 5, football is on. The SEC, ACC, and Big 12 conferences opened their seasons in September; the Big Ten will begin in late October; and the Pac-12 will start in early November.
With college football season upon us, it is time to revisit a seemingly never-ending conversation: should college athletes be paid? In my eyes, the answer is yes, at least for men’s basketball and football players in the Power 5 conferences. This should have happened years ago, but now is the perfect time to make this much-needed reform. College athletes will be risking their health during a pandemic while America’s racial reckoning offers a chance for actual change instead of empty gestures of woke allyship.
The Case for Paying these Athletes
The first important reason to pay Power 5 college football and men’s basketball players is that they deserve it. A recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper (which will be cited frequently in this article) reveals just how unfairly men’s college basketball and football players are treated. These athletes are only paid through scholarships and small living stipends, which account for less than 7% of the revenue generated by their sports. This revenue share is tiny compared to NBA or NFL players, who recoup about 50% of the revenue that their league generates. If Power 5 college football players were paid with a 50% revenue share (and not just 7% via scholarship and stipend), they’d make about $374,000 each year. For Power 5 men’s basketball players, they’d make about $587,000. These athletes are certainly not as talented as the professionals, but they deserve a comparable amount of the revenue they generate.
These salaries would be large, but these athletes are worth it. Power 5 athletics earn $8.3 billion in revenue for their schools, the vast majority of which is thanks to football and men’s basketball. For schools in the Division I Football Subdivision (FBS), which includes the Power 5 among other schools, 58% of athletics revenue comes from football and men’s basketball. Only 15% of the revenue comes from all other sports combined, and the remaining 27% is from “non-sport revenue” like media deals, and most of the value in these deals is thanks to football and men’s basketball.
While football and men’s basketball raise billions, the rest of the sports operate at a net loss. Power 5 women’s sports teams collectively lose $11 million each year at each school and other men’s sports teams collectively lose $5 million each year at each school. Football and men’s basketball generate nearly $60 million each year for each school, and even after exorbitantly compensating coaches, Power 5 college football and basketball still manage to profit $27.9 million a year for their schools.
Beyond being owed, the athletes are often in need, and salaries could substantively better their lives and the lives of their families.
Javon Kinlaw, a recently drafted defensive tackle for the San Francisco 49ers, grew up constantly moving and sometimes homeless. There were times where he lived without electricity or running water. He only owned a few pairs of clothes. When he played football at the University of South Carolina, he was an important player on the team. In his senior season, he had 35 tackles and six sacks, all while taking classes and raising his daughter who was born a few months earlier. His football team generated $65 million last year. If Power 5 defensive lineman were paid the revenue share they are paid in the NFL, he’d be paid roughly $1.3 million per year. It is unconscionable that a formerly homeless football player trying to raise his child was paid no more than a scholarship and measly living stipend while generating millions of dollars for his school.
Rather than pay football players 50% of the revenue they generate, like NFL players receive, the money Kinlaw generates is used to pay for other non-revenue-generating college sports. The athletes in the money-hemorrhaging sports are unsurprisingly richer (and whiter, of course). The average athlete on a Power 5 football or men’s basketball team went to a high school that served a neighborhood with a median household income of $58,361. The average athlete on a different Power 5 sports team went to a high school that served a neighborhood with a median household income of $70,997.70. To clarify, the ticket sale revenue from a Power 5 college football game pays for the scholarships and cross-country travel of athletes whose families were roughly $12,500 richer than the families of the kids you’re actually watching hit each other for your entertainment.
Plus, Javon Kinlaw is one of the lucky ones, since he will make over $9 million this year playing for the San Francisco 49ers. Only 246 rookies are on NFL rosters, yet there are roughly 1,381 football players that graduate every year from Power 5 schools. For the other 1,135 football players, there is no NFL payday coming. Many of them grew up poor themselves, and many will struggle like millions of other college graduates to find employment or to even stay above the poverty line. This is if they graduate, and many Power 5 football and basketball players don’t. Shouldn’t they get a portion of the tremendous amount of money they generated for their school to help them begin their adult lives?
We are in a pandemic, yet college football continues. For people under 34, the fatality rate for coronavirus is roughly the same as the chance of being killed in a car accident in any given year. However, COVID-19 may pose heart risks to football players like the 10 Big Ten football players who’ve already contracted myocarditis as a result of coronavirus. A full 15% of all Big Ten athletes who tested positive for COVID-19 before mid-September appeared to have myocarditis, a type of heart inflammation that can be fatal. Further, many football players, especially lineman that are on average borderline obese, are not of healthy weight and therefore are at higher risk for COVID-19 complications than a young person of more healthy weight.
This moment offers us another angle to attack the unfairness of not paying these athletes: race. Any honest attempt by the Power 5 schools to do something substantive for black people would include paying their football and men’s basketball players. 55% of Power 5 football players and 56% of Power 5 men’s basketball players are black, yet the money they generate pays for other sports that are only 10.5% black and 72.4% white.
Power 5 schools tend to be outwardly clear about their stance on racial justice. Clemson helmets say “Black Lives Matter.” The LSU president says the same. The Athletic Director of USC (the current one, not the ones who let rich families bribe their kids in) announces, “Our shared mission is to confront – head on, together, and with urgency and purpose – the social injustices that are tearing our communities apart.” How endearing! Yet, I can think of one “social injustice” we know he isn’t committed to “confronting:” the heavily black football and men’s basketball team pay his salary (which was big enough to lure him away from his $600,000 salary at University of Cincinnati), and pay for his predominantly white, money-hemorrhaging teams to go to school for free and travel the country.
Here’s something that won’t decrease racism, nor help black people in any way: a tenured Ohio State Professor’s groveling apology for his own racism in believing college football is important to America. Here’s another: one of the University of Michigan campuses had racially segregated “virtual cafes” a few weeks ago. Perhaps billion-dollar entities like Ohio State and the University of Michigan system could just pay the majority black sports teams that make them hundreds of millions instead of engaging in such nonsensical and useless acts as these.
What the Underpay Enthusiasts get Wrong
Those that don’t want to see these athletes paid (I’ll call them the “underpay enthusiasts”) offer a number of arguments. The first is that the athletes are already paid via scholarships and small living stipends. This has already been debunked: even though scholarships are worth a great deal, scholarships and stipends only account for less than 7% of the revenue generated by men’s basketball and football, compared to the approximately 50% revenue share NFL and NBA players recoup in their salaries.
Another argument used by the underpay enthusiasts is that putting a monetary value on college sports would deny the importance of college sports in educating athletes and teaching them the important values of hard work, time management, and teamwork. This argument imagines that people do not value anything about a paid job other than its salary. The idea that people gain things from their job while making a salary escapes this line of thinking.
Though the underpay enthusiasts don’t always mention it (though some do), I will give them another valid critique: if we pay college basketball and football players, we won’t be able to use the money they generate for other sports.
There are two possible responses to the fear that Power 5 schools will lose their other NCAA sports. The first is that Power 5 schools would be just fine with fewer NCAA teams. Club sports teams serve many of the same goals at a far reduced cost and a far reduced time commitment. Furthermore, less athletic scholarships for sports that don’t generate revenue could mean more merit and need-based scholarships.
Alternatively, the schools could just ask their many wealthy alumni to donate to the money-hemorrhaging sports to offset their costs, instead of making college football players pay for their wealthy lacrosse-playing classmates’ cross-country flights while they slam their heads into each other night after night.
Other underpay enthusiasts ironically fear inequality, worrying that only some schools will be able to pay only some athletes. Better some schools than none, no? If Dartmouth football players don’t wake up with paychecks, nothing will change in their lives (they aren’t paid as it is). If Javon Kinlaw was paid last year, it would’ve made a massive impact in his and his child’s life, and assuming he is so inclined, his parents’ life as well. Why forego paying the best athletes because some other less entertaining athletes don’t generate enough money? By this logic, we should stop paying NFL players because nobody will pay to watch me play beach football with my friends.
To be clear, it may be true that some other college athletes who don’t play football or men’s basketball should be paid as well. But, paying college football and men’s basketball players at Power 5 schools is truly low-hanging fruit. Power 5 college football and men’s basketball players are owed too much, and now is too perfect a time to start paying them.
 This calculation was based on assuming the revenue share of the NFL and the relative pay by position in the NFL. For more details on the calculation, the frequently cited NBER paper and its appendix are of use.
 This is a bit of an oversimplification since the NBER paper doesn’t use actual family incomes of the students, but rather median incomes in the neighborhood that the high school they went to served.
 There are about 85 football players with scholarships on each Power 5 team according to the NBER working paper, and there are 65 Power 5 teams. Dividing by the four class years, around 1,381 should graduate every year.