The Pay for Play Predicament

Should college athletes be considered employees of the Universities they play for? This hot topic around the world of sports has compelling arguments on both sides. The growing number of lawsuits such as Ed O’Bannon vs. NCAA or the first college athlete union NCPA vs. NCAA have brought this topic to the forefront. Many former and current student athletes are fed up with the NCAA for the profit the organization receives because of them. The NCAA has very strict policies regarding student athletes receiving benefits of any kind while enrolled. In this post, I will provide a short look into both sides so that you can come to your own conclusion on this very controversial topic along with relating it back to concepts of organizational communication.


Argument for the Payment of Student Athletes

The pattern in many of the legal cases is that college athletes are dedicating so much to their college; they feel they deserve compensation for doing so. Any form of compensation could technically land a student athlete in hot water. This means if a head coach takes a player to McDonald’s for a Big Mac it is considered to be an NCAA rules violation. It can be something that minor. This could seem pretty unfair from an athlete’s perspective considering the NCAA made nearly $1 billion in 2014-2015 (USA Today). A student athlete does not have the time to maintain a job while putting in the effort it takes to deal with school, practice, and competitions. A large number of student athletes come from an impoverished background and could desperately use the money. For many athletes this will be the peak of their personal brand. Opportunities for endorsements are high, yet athletes cannot accept deals due to the notion of amateurism in intercollegiate sport. As I have learned in my sport management classes, only 1.1% of players make it professionally in men’s basketball and it is not much better at 1.6% for the NFL. Similar statistics are seen in other collegiate sports. The majority will not have the opportunity to receive some sort of an endorsement deal at the next level.


The other prospective option for student athlete employment is the concept of applying a minimum wage for all student athletes. The potential for this is ongoing and is displayed in a lawsuit case Dawson vs. NCAA case. Lamar Dawson played as a linebacker for USC from 2011 to 2015. His complaint states “he was denied full pay for all hours worked, including overtime pay, and was frequently permitted to work without receiving required minimum wage payments.” (LA Times). He was putting in as much, if not more, work than a job that another college student would likely have but was not compensated for doing so. The argument on the college athletes side is clear, they are putting the school in the headlines deserve a piece of the profits. With many prolific college football and basketball coaches bringing in multi-million dollar deals it is easy to see why this thinking exists.


I can understand how students feel they are treated as part of the machine metaphor presented in classical management. In terms of specialization, each individual athlete has a part on each team and has a role to fill. Whether you are the quarterback or the kicker each individual plays an important role in the process of each game. This goes for every sport. Individuals are chosen for the special skills they possess that fit exactly what the coach who recruited them was looking for. This usually applies to them as an athlete and a person. Sadly athletes must feel a sort of replaceability. Most athletes are on a year-to-year scholarship that must be renewed. If that athlete does not play up to par it is entirely feasible that they will not have their scholarship renewed at their coaches’ discretion. If an athlete is not playing up to par or if they are not pulling the grades that a coach expects then they run that possibility of not being renewed. Finally, players are expected to be predictable. They must regiment their time correctly in order to accomplish everything they are expected to do both academically and athletically. Consistency, in play and in the classroom, is a trait that athletic programs desire in the recruitment process of athletes. I definitely recognize why the desire for some sort of compensation to feel like they are more than just a part in the college athletics machine.


NCAA argument Against the Payment of Student Athletes

From a business perspective, at this time paying college athletes does not make fiscal sense for the NCAA. Despite the association making close to $1 billion a year, there are only 20 schools that actually generate a profit from their perspective athletics programs (Politifact). This is out of over 1,100 programs that currently boast athletic programs. Paying athletes would go into effect for all sports not only the “money-makers” football and basketball. A national powerhouse like the University of Alabama may be able to fund all university programs through boosters and royalty fees, but there is absolutely no way a smaller school like its state neighbor Alabama A&M could afford such an expenditure.

The NCAA also cherishes the nature of amateurism. This perception is what the current system provides. The argument that the athletes are already having their education paid for is also a common theme in pro NCAA arguments. After all, college athletes are students first and foremost and the NCAA expects them to value their education more than the sport they play. Education, not profits, is what the NCAA says is the true benefit of participation in college sports. That sort of connection that the players on the field or court are just like those in the stands is part of what creates the passion you see from college sport fans. The court system recently ruled in favor of the NCAA. In a December 2016 ruling in a case involving the University of Pennsylvania women’s track team, the Supreme Court ruled that there is, “revered tradition of amateurism in college sports” (IndyStar). It appears at least for the time being college athletes will remain unpaid. The only possible scenario where they could be paid in the future entails a complicated system of collective bargaining in which the upper echelon teams pool money together to bring lower level teams to the same fiscal status. This goes beyond my current knowledge.


From the NCAA’s perspective, the current organization structure must remain intact. There is a clear hierarchy in place and while college athletes do remain at the bottom, they also provide a ton of value for universities in terms of culture and community. The NCAA needs athletes just as badly as need players need the association. This organizational structure is much different than the topics traditionally covered in organizational communication because at this point, student athletes are not considered employees. There are aspects of Fayol’s six principles of organizational structure present but at the end of the day it is still complicated since the “employee” in this case is actually a student.


I hope this blog has improved your knowledge on the complicated predicament facing the NCAA and its participants. Only time will tell whether student athletes will eventually be paid for the work they put in or the traditional system will remain in place.










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