Paying College Athletes – Top 3 Pros and Cons

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Source: Keenan Hairston, “Zion Williamson :: Duke Men’s Basketball NCAA :: Keenan Hairston,”, Dec. 5, 2018, creative commons license

The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) is a nonprofit organization formed in 1906 that regulates college athletics, including game rules, athlete eligibility, and college tournaments. [1] As of Mar. 2021, the NCAA was composed of “[n]early half a million college athletes [who] make up the 19,886 teams that send more than 57,661 participants to compete each year in the NCAA’s 90 championships in 24 sports across 3 divisions.” [1] [2]

The NCAA is seemingly the final authority to decide whether college athletes should be paid to play college sports. However, in 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the Fair Play Act that allows college athletes to hire agents, sign endorsement deals, and be paid for the use of their likeness. [3]

California was the first state to pass a NIL (name, image, and likeness) law, which takes effect on Jan. 1, 2023. But California was quickly followed by more states. As of June 10, 2021, 18 states have passed NIL laws; five more states have passed bills that were awaiting the governor’s signature to become law; 14 states have introduced NIL bills; and one state has a bill passed by the Senate and awaiting a House vote, according to the Business of College Sports. [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [42]

The NCAA was scheduled to vote on new NIL rules in Jan. 2021, but it then postponed the vote, citing “external factors.” [10] Days before the scheduled vote Makan Delrahim, JD, Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division of the United States Department of Justice under the Trump administration, questioned the proposed rules’ compliance with antitrust laws. [11]

Additionally, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear a case (National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Shawne Alston, et al.) about whether the NCAA is violating antitrust laws by restricting college athletes’ compensation. [12] The Supreme Court heard arguments on Mar. 31, 2021 as the NCAA March Madness tournament heads into Final Four games just days later on Apr. 3. Respondents were split 50/50 in a June 1, 2021 New York Times survey about whether the NCAA strictly limiting paid compensation is constitutional. [13] [14] [41]

Gabe Feldman, JD, Professor of Sports Law, Director of the Sports Law Program and Associate Provost for NCAA compliance at Tulane University, noted that the last time the NCAA was at the Supreme Court was in 1984 (NCAA vs. the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma). The ruling changed the broadcast regulations for college football. Feldman explained, “That was a shape-shifting decision that in many ways fundamentally changed economics of college football and college football television. And ever since that 1984 decision, courts have been relying on that language to try to interpret antitrust law applies to all NCAA restrictions, including player compensation.” [15]

On June 21, 2021, the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the NCAA cannot ban certain payments to student athletes under the premise of maintaining amateurism. Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the majority, stated, “traditions alone cannot justify the NCAA’s decision to build a massive money-raising enterprise on the backs of student athletes who are not fairly compensated. Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate. And under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it is not evident why college sports should be any different. The NCAA is not above the law.” [43] [44]

On June 28, 2021, the NCAA Division I Council recommended to the NCAA Division I Board of Directors that student athletes be allowed to profit from their name, image, and likeness. Schools would not be allowed to pay students and no one could offer compensation for students to attend a particular school. If adopted, the rule would only apply to Division I schools and would be temporary until the NCAA or Congress acts. [45]

On June 30, 2021, fewer than 12 hours before some states’ NIL laws went into effect, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors issued an interim ruling stating that Bylaw 12 (the rules that say athletes cannot receive payment) will not be enforced. Divisions II and III of the NCAA followed suit and the changes went into effect for all three divisions on July 1, 2021. [46]

The University of North Carolina became the first school to organize group licensing deals for student athletes in July 2021. UNC athletes will be able to earn money for NIL marketing including UNC trademarks and logos in groups of three or more athletes. For example, a student athlete will be compensated for the sale of a jersey featuring their name, or for a sponsorship deal in which they appear wearing a UNC jersey. Group licensing deals in theory can allow lesser-known players to reap the benefits of appearing alongside a well-known player. [47]

By Jan. 2022, without a clear NIL structure from the NCAA, some schools were questioning how to navigate deals for players or whole teams without violating NCAA policy. [48]

NCAA president Charlie Baker sent a letter on Dec. 5, 2023, to the 362 Division I member schools calling for reformations including creating a separate division for the top-earning schools that would mimic professional sports and updating NIL regulations so female athletes could better benefit. The rule changes will have to be considered by the NCAA governing boards, a process which could take up to a year. [50]

A 2019 Seton Hall Sports Poll found that 60% of those surveyed agreed that college athletes should be allowed compensation for their name, image, and/or likeness, while 32% disagreed, and 8% were unsure. This was quite a change from polling conducted in 2017, when 60% believed college scholarships were enough compensation for college athletes. [16]

Should Colleges and Universities Pay College Athletes?

Pro 1

The NCAA, colleges, and universities profit unfairly from the work and likenesses of college athletes.

The NCAA reported over $1.06 billion in revenue in 2017 (the most recent available numbers). In 2018, NCAA president Mark Emmert was paid more than $2.7 million. Nine other NCAA executives were paid more than $500,000 in 2018, with one paid more than $1.3 million. [18] [19]

Michael Sokolove, author of The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino (2018), explained, “If you look at a program like [University of] Louisville, …they generate about $45 million a year in revenue. They give out 13 scholarships. That adds up to about $400,000 a year. The rest of it gets spread out to the coach, who makes $8 million a year, to the assistant coaches, who make as much as a half-million dollars a year. All throughout the athletic department, people are making six-figure salaries. It does not go to the players, what I call the unpaid workforce.” [3]

As of Nov. 17, 2020, the University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban was the highest paid NCAA college football coach, making $9.3 million per year. 81 other head football coaches made more than $1 million annually and another 29 more than $500,000. [20]

The highest paid men’s basketball coach was the University of Kentucky head coach, John Calipari, who was paid $8.2 million per year. 69 other head men’s basketball coaches were paid more than $1 million annually, and another three more than $500,000. [20]

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who was forecast to earn about $11 million in 2023, says, “I would take less money for the players to have a share. I hope other coaches would use their voice to express the same thing.” [50]

College athletes, arguably the stars of the show who earn millions year after year for the well-paid NCAA executives, coaches, and staff, were forbidden by the NCAA from not only being paid for their work-, but from seeking other related compensation such as endorsement deals. And, as John I. Jenkins and Jack Swarbrick, President and Athletics Director of Notre Dame University argue, “We have been vocal in our conviction that student-athletes should be allowed to… profit from their celebrity — for one simple reason: Other students are allowed to. If a college student is a talented artist or musician no one begrudges him the chance to make money from his skills. And athletes should as far as possible have the opportunities other students enjoy.” [49]

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Pro 2

College athletes are risking their bodies as well as their future careers and earning potential to play for colleges and universities while often receiving a sub-par education.

Governor of California Gavin Newsom, stated, “Collegiate student athletes put everything on the line — their physical health, future career prospects and years of their lives to compete. Colleges reap billions from these student athletes’ sacrifices and success but, in the same breath, block them from earning a single dollar. That’s a bankrupt model.” [3]

Zachary Kerr, PhD, Researcher at the University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, stated, “I definitely think research indicates strong evidence that injuries during one’s sports career can potentially be associated with adverse health outcomes later in life.” [21]

In 2017, 67% of former Division I athletes had sustained a major injury and 50% had chronic injuries, 2.5% higher than non-athletes. [21]

Azmatullah Hussaini, MD, President of the New York/New Jersey chapter of the American Muslim Health Professionals, and Jules Lipoff, MD, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, offered additional context: especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, “[g]iven that athletes are disproportionately Black in the biggest revenue-generating sports — football and basketball — this dynamic also evokes America’s horrific history of unpaid slave labor. It’s hard to ignore the racist undertones when the financial benefit to these institutions is based on the unpaid work of young Black men.” [22]

The NCAA requires players to have health insurance but does not pay for that insurance and can refuse to pay medical expenses for sports injuries, some of which can have life-long consequences for the players’ bodies and career opportunities. The NCAA also does not prohibit schools from canceling injured athletes’ scholarships, leaving athletes without a sport or education. [23]

Adding insult to sometimes literal injury, college athletes are also frequently denied the NCAA’s other form of “compensation”: a quality education. As Jon Solomon, Editorial Director for the Sports and Society Program at the Aspen Institute explained, “The most glaring example occurred when the University of North Carolina was found by outside parties to have organized fake classes that enabled dozens of athletes to gain and maintain their eligibility… of the 3,100 students who took the fake classes over 18 years, 47.4 percent were athletes… North Carolina avoided NCAA penalties by essentially arguing that the NCAA should stay out of irregularities in college courses.” [24] The NCAA polices athletes’ finances but does not ensure a quality education.

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Pro 3

College athletes are often valued at more than $1 million, but they (and their families) frequently live below the poverty line.

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the top two college football positions–the quarterback and wide receiver–were worth $2.4 million and $1.3 million per year respectively, while starting men’s basketball players in the Power Five schools were worth between $800,000 and $1.2 million per year. [25] [26]

If college players earned about 50% of their teams’ revenues like the NFL and NBA players do, the average football player’s yearly salary would be $360,000 and the average basketball player’s yearly salary would be $500,000. [25] [26]

The study found that “[t]he player-level analysis reveals that the existing limits on player compensation effectively transfers resources away from students who are more likely to be black and more likely to come from poor neighborhoods towards students who are more likely to be white and come from higher-income neighborhoods.” [25]

College athletes are required to make up the difference between NCAA scholarships and the actual cost of living. Tuition shortfalls amount to thousands of dollars per year and leave about 85% of players to live below the poverty line. For example, fair market value for a University of Texas football player was $513,922. However, players lived $778 below the federal poverty line and owed $3,624 in tuition. [27]

About 25% of Division I athletes reported food poverty in the past year and almost 14% reported being homeless in the past year. Erin McGeoy, a former water polo athlete at George Washington University, explained, “a common occurrence was that we would run out of meal money halfway through the semester and that’s when I started to run into troubles of food insecurity.” She turned to boarding dogs in her no-dogs-allowed apartment in order to pay rent because housing costs increased each year but her housing allowance remained static. [28]

The NCAA keeps players in poverty and denied them ways to earn money, while making millions on their performance.

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Con 1

Scholarships are fair financial compensation for college athletes, especially considering the precarious finances of athletic departments.

According to the NCAA, the organization provides “more than $3.6 billion in athletic scholarships annually to more than 180,000 student-athletes.” Divided equitably, each student would receive about $20,000 per year. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average total cost of public college (tuition, fees, room, and board) for the 2017–18 academic year was $17,797. Considering other scholarships and aid are widely available and not all college athletes require financial aid, the NCAA scholarships are generous. [29] [30]

Further, most college programs do not generate the income needed to run their athletic programs, much less pay athletes. In fiscal year 2019, the collective expenses of the 65 Power Five schools–the largest and richest Division I schools in the NCAA–exceeded revenue by $7 million. Other Division I schools had an almost $23 million collective difference between revenue and expenses. No Division II or III schools’ revenue exceeded expenses. [31]

If students were paid, the NCAA argues, many colleges and universities would have to offer fewer scholarships and the remaining scholarships would be distributed unfairly to top football and men’s basketball players because those two sports bring in the most revenue. Schools would also have to cut unprofitable sports including gymnastics, swimming and diving, tennis, track and field, volleyball, and wrestling. [32] Discrepancies between men’s and women’s sports such as the weight room during the 2021 NCAA basketball tournament would only worsen. [40]

Paying players would also limit the literal and figurative playing fields to elite universities with large budgets. As John Thelin, PhD, Research Professor of History of Higher Education & Public Policy at the University of Kentucky, explained, “paying salaries to players will increase [athletic] program expenditures without necessarily increasing revenues… [and] a handful of powerful programs will stand to gain in competition for athletic talent simply because they can afford to pay salaries. Others will mimic as they try to keep up but eventually will fall short in trying to outbid Auburn University, Florida State, the University of Southern California or the University of Texas in the college player arms race.” [33]

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Con 2

Very few college athletes will go pro, so athletes should take advantage of the education being offered in exchange for playing a college sport.

The reality is that the vast majority of college athletes will never play professionally. Of the 36,011 college baseball players, only 8,002 are eligible to play professionally each year. 1,217 will be draft picks, but only 791 will be drafted yearly, meaning about 9.9% of college baseball players will go pro, which is the largest likelihood in NCAA sports. [34]

The major money-makers, football and men’s basketball, have very low odds. Of the 73,712 NCAA football players, about 16,380 are draft-eligible and 254 will be drafted, meaning about 1.2% of college football players will go pro. Of the 18,816 male basketball players, 4,181 are draft-eligible and 60 will be drafted, but only 52 will go pro, or a 1.2% chance a college basketball player will play professionally. The odds are even lower for women’s basketball at 0.6%. [34]

The NCAA noted, “[p]rofessional opportunities are extremely limited and the likelihood of a high school or even college athlete becoming a professional athlete is very low. In contrast, the likelihood of an NCAA athlete earning a college degree is significantly greater; graduation success rates are 86% in Division I, 71% in Division II and 87% in Division III.” [34]

In other words, it would be more prudent and more profitable for college athletes to focus on education as their compensation.

Data analyzed from the Department of Labor showed nine out of 10 new jobs were going to employees with college degrees in June 2018. [35] Further, a Gallup poll of “74,385 U.S. adults with a bachelor’s degree, finds that college graduates who participated in NCAA athletics experience a host of positive long-term life outcomes at greater rates than non-athletes.” [36]

Those positive outcomes include: 70% of NCAA athletes graduated in four years or fewer, 50% agree that college was worth the cost, 39% earned an advanced degree, 33% have “good” jobs after graduation, and 24%
“are thriving at the highest levels,” all higher percentages than their non-athlete peers. [36]

Amy Perko, CEO of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, said of the Gallup findings, “It’s a positive report for the educational benefits for college sports, and it reinforces the point that we’ve tried to make over the years. There’s an important role for college sports in higher education, and that role needs to be placed in the proper perspective as part of the educational mission, not apart from it.” [37]

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Con 3

Paying college athletes would not solve the real problem: the American amateur sports system is broken.

Football and basketball players cannot play professionally immediately after high school. The NBA requires players to be at least 19 and a year out of high school, while the NFL requires players to be three years out of high school. [38] These rules can effectively limit players’ options to playing in college or choosing another profession altogether. Most players have no real “amateur” sport option and those who would rather not go to college have no other established feeder system to make it to a professional team.

Further confusing the issue, the NCAA does not have a consistent or fair definition of “amateurism” and allows some significant forms of financial compensation. College athletes are allowed to compete in the Olympic Games and be financially compensated, such as Joseph Schooling, a University of Texas swimmer, who earned a $740,000 bonus for winning Singapore’s first gold medal ever at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games for the 100m butterfly. College athletes may also play a second sport professionally and be compensated, such as Clemson quarterback Kyle Parker who earned a $1.4 million baseball signing bonus from the Colorado Rockies in 2010 while still playing football for the Tigers. Tennis players may earn up to $10,000 in prize money yearly while playing college tennis and college football players may earn up to $550 in bowl gifts. [24]

B. David Ridpath, EdD, Associate Professor of Sports Administration at Ohio University, noted, “The only amateur quality about college athletics is that colleges refuse to pay their players.” Ridpath explained, “The United States is the only country in the world that has a significant portion of elite athletic development and commercialized sport embedded within its education systems. Consider that ten of the biggest outdoor sports stadiums in the world (excluding auto racing venues) are American college football stadiums. None of the largest ones are NFL stadiums.” [39]

To fix the problem, and separate athletes who are getting an education just because they want to play a sport from those who actually want to go to college, the United States needs a true amateur or minor league that feeds into professional sports.

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Discussion Questions

1. Should college athletes be paid? Why or why not?

2. Should the college athletics system be revised in another way to compensate amateur athletes? Explain your answer.

3. How should the NCAA (or another governing body) balance college athletes’ sport, educational, and financial interests? Explain your answer(s).

4. Do you think well-established minor-league systems would be attractive to high-school graduates and college athletes less interested in (or ill-prepared for) higher education? Explain your answer(s).

Take Action

1. Consider the pro position of the National College Players Association that paying college athletes is a civil rights issue.

2. Explore the NCAA site and think critically about the organization as the governing body of college athletics.

3. Analyze the argument that paying athletes would “ruin college sports” from Cody J. McDavis, former college basketball player.

4. Consider how you felt about the issue before reading this article. After reading the pros and cons on this topic, has your thinking changed? If so, how? List two to three ways. If your thoughts have not changed, list two to three ways your better understanding of the “other side of the issue” now helps you better argue your position.

5. Push for the position and policies you support by writing US national senators and representatives.


1.The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “National Collegiate Athletic Association,”, Sep. 14, 2020
2.NCAA, “What Is the NCAA?,” (accessed Mar. 1, 2021)
3.Colin Dwyer, “California Governor Signs Bill Allowing College Athletes to Profit from Endorsements,”, Sep. 30, 2019
4.Rudy Hill and Jonatha D. Wohlwend, “Florida Law Will Allow College Athletes to Profit from Name, Image, and Likeness Starting Summer 2021,” June, 25, 2020
5.Ben Pickman, “Colorado Governor Signs Bills Allowing NCAA Athletes to Profit Off Name, Likeness,”, Mar. 20, 2020
6.Christian Dennie, “Governor of Nebraska Signs Name, Image, and Likeness Bill into Law,”, Aug. 28, 2020
7.Gregg E. Clifton, “UPDATE: Michigan Joins Growing Number of States Granting Name, Image, Likeness Rights to Collegiate Student-Athletes,”, Jan. 1, 2021
8.Suzette Parmley, “Murphy Signs Bill Paying NJ College Athletes and Allowing Them to Hire Attorneys/Agents,”, Sep. 14, 2020
9.Student Player, (accessed on Mar. 1, 2021)
10.Dan Murphy and Adam Rittenberg, “NCAA Delays Vote to Change College Athlete Compensation Rules,”, Jan. 11, 2021
11.Sarah Polus, “NCAA Tables Name, Image and Likeness Vote after DOJ Warns of Potential Antitrust Violations,”, Jan. 12, 2021
12.Adam Liptak, “Supreme Court to Rule on N.C.A.A. Limits on Paying College Athletes,”, Dec. 16, 2020
13.Dennis Dodd, “Breaking Down the NCAA's Forthcoming Supreme Court Battle with Its Big Brother Status and Amateurism at Stake,”, Feb. 3, 2021
14.NCAA, “2021 March Madness: Complete Schedule, Dates,” (accessed Mar. 1, 2021]
15.Jessica Gresko, “High Court Agrees to Hear NCAA Athlete Compensation Case,”, Dec. 16, 2020
16.Daniel Roberts, “Poll: 60% of Americans Support College Athletes Getting Paid Endorsements,”, Oct. 8, 2019
17.NCPA, “NCAA Refusal to Vote on NIL Pay Is ‘Slap in the Face’ to Athletes,”, Jan. 11, 2021
18.Bloomberg, “The NCAA Raked in Over $1 Billion Last Year,”, Mar. 7, 2018
19.Steve Berkowitz, “NCAA President Mark Emmert Credited with $2.7 Million in Total Pay for 2018 Calendar Year,”, June 2, 2020
20.USA Today, “NCAA Salaries,”, Nov. 17, 2020
21.Ian McMahan, “Athletes Are Paying the Physical Price of Playing College Sports,”, Oct. 31, 2017
22.Azmatullah Hussaini and Jules Lipoff, “Op-Ed: COVID-19 Is Making the NCAA’s Exploitation of Student-Athletes Even More Obvious,”, June 23, 2020
23.Meghan Walsh, “'I Trusted 'Em': When NCAA Schools Abandon Their Injured Athletes,”, May 1, 2013
24. Jon Solomon, “The History Behind the Debate over Paying NCAA Athletes,”, Apr. 23, 2018
25.Craig Garthwaite, “Who Profits from Amateurism? Rent-Sharing in Modern College Sports,”, Oct. 2020
26.Tommy Beer, “NCAA Athletes Could Make $2 Million A Year If Paid Equitably, Study Suggests,”, Sep. 1, 2020
27.NCPA, “Study: "The Price of Poverty in Big Time College Sport" - 9/13/2011,”, Sep. 13, 2011
28.Mary Kate McCoy, “Survey: Nearly a Quarter of Division I Athletes Face Food Insecurity,”, May 6, 2020
29.NCAA, “Scholarships,” (accessed Mar. 3, 2021)
30.National Center for Education Statistics, “Fast Facts: Tuition Costs of Colleges and Universities,”, 2019
31.NCAA, “Finances of Intercollegiate Athletics,” (accessed Mar. 3, 2021)
32.NCAA, “NCAA Defends Scholarships for College Athletes,” ncaaorg (accessed Mar. 3, 2021)
33.John Thelin, “Paying College Athletes,”, Feb. 12, 2018
34.NCAA, “Estimated Probability of Competing in Professional Athletics,”, Apr. 8, 2020
35.Steve Goldstein, “Nine out of 10 New Jobs Are Going to Those with a College Degree,”, June 5, 2018
36.Gallup, “A Study of NCAA Student-Athletes: Undergraduate Experiences and Post-College Outcomes,”, 2020
37.Greta Anderson, “Study: College Athletes Have Better Academic, Life Outcomes,”, June 24, 2020
38.Griffin Connolly, “Wealth distribution is bad — except when it comes to college athletes' money, top Republican senator suggests,”, Sep. 15, 2020
39.B. David Ridpath, “A Path Forward for Reforming College Sports,”, Jan. 15, 2020
40.Molly Hensley-Clancy, “NCAA Vows to Improve Conditions at Women’s Basketball Tournament, as Outcry Continues,”, Mar. 19, 2021
41.Adam Liptak and Alicia Parlapiano, "What the Public Thinks about Major Supreme Court Cases This Term,", June 1, 2021
42.Business of College Sports, "Tracker: Name, Image and Likeness Legislation by State,", June 10, 2021
43.Adam Liptak, "Supreme Court Backs Payments to Student-Athletes,", July 21, 2021
44.US Supreme Court, "Syllabus National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Alston et al.,", July 21, 2021
45.Alan Blinder, "College Players May Make Money Off Their Fame, Powerful N.C.A.A. Panel Recommends,", June 28, 2021
46.Alan Blinder, "College Athletes May Earn Money from Their Fame, N.C.A.A. Rules,", June 30, 2021
47.Becky Sullivan, "UNC Becomes the First School to Organize Group Endorsement Deals for Its Players,", July 21, 2021
48.Josh Moody, "Lack of Clear-Cut NCAA Rules Creates Confusion about NIL,", Jan. 4, 2022
49.John I. Jenkins and Jack Swarbrick, "College Sports Are a Treasure. Don’t Turn Them Into the Minor Leagues.,", Mar. 23, 2023
50.Billy Witz, "N.C.A.A. Proposes Uncapping Compensation for Athletes,", Dec. 5, 2023