By Ken Reed

The issue of whether or not to pay college athletes has been a hot one for a long time. Moreover, even if you think college athletes should be paid, the question is what would paying college athletes actually look like? What about Title IX considerations? What would happen to non-revenue college sports like field hockey and tennis?

The issue is an important one, albeit a messy one; a tangled web of factors to consider. Until now at least.

Patrick Hruby has written a thought-provoking long piece for the Atlantic magazine that uses the Olympic model to address the issue of amateurism in college sports.

Hruby points out that the Olympics eventually gave up the myth of amateurism, allowing athletes to be compensated, and the Games have thrived. He builds a compelling case that the same thing would result in our colleges and universities if the current strict amateur rules were dropped. He also contends that college athletic departments wouldn’t have to pay a dime in salaries.

How’s that?

“Salaries aren’t mandatory,” writes Hruby.

“The Olympics doesn’t pay participants. It simply allows them to get paid. There’s a difference. A difference college sports should welcome with open arms. Don’t make campus athletes university employees. But do let them be like [Michael] Phelps, appearing in commercials and on the cover of video games, profiting off their fame and image like everyone else in America. Including their coaches. Doing so won’t cost the current college sports industrial complex a penny of the billions it receives for men’s football and basketball broadcast rights; if anything, it will help grow and share the wealth without having to share too much of said wealth.”

As Hruby suggests, history tells us that prohibition doesn’t work. College athletes have been getting paid under the table — in a variety of ways — for years. Given that you can’t stop these types of payments, and given that it’s highly unlikely that big-time college sports will become less commercialized anytime soon, American college sports will be gradually pulled toward the Olympics model. At that point, college and university executives and board members will have to make a big decision: Are we going to go with the Olympics model (scholarships, plus allowing outside endorsement-type income) or pull back to the Division III model (current Division III amateur rules, including no scholarships).

Hruby’s asking, why wait? It’s a question that every college sports stakeholder should seriously consider.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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