As we all know, there have recently been many scandals involving paying football players (Cam Newton, recruiting, OSU players selling gold pants, Tattoo-gate, etc). It's not just football players involved, either: we all know what happened with the Fab 5. Is paying sports players so bad though? We all know that universities make millions of dollars based on their football - and to a lesser extent basketball - programs. In addition, many players come from extremely poor backgrounds and must support their families and/or kids. Obviously, if we were to pay them, it would need to be legalized by the NCAA.
First, I know that many of you do not believe in paying sports players. Why pay them when they're already receiving a free education worth 200K? I would like to present an unusual but strangely compelling analogy between football players and PhD students. As an engineering PhD student, I've noticed many similarities between the two. Obviously the analogy isn't perfect but I consider it to be an interesting one.
- Both PhD students and football players provide more value to the University than they receive in direct compensation. PhD students draw grants worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars from companies (if you're an engineering or science PhD student) and the federal government. A good PhD student provides a lot of exposure for the University in the research community and in the news: when you read about some professor's science breakthrough in the Science section of the NY Times, keep in mind that the PhD students working for the professor are the ones who did 99% of the work. In compensation, the PhD student receives free tuition (sounds familiar?), and a minor stipend for living expenses. Obviously, we all know that football players generate way more money in athletic revenue and generate tons of exposure for the university: see the Doug Flutie effect. Also, would anyone not in Idaho have heard of Boise State University if it weren't for football?
- Both PhD students and football players get a free education. All PhD students do not pay for their tuition, either receiving funding through teaching (TA), research (RA), or an internal or external fellowship.
- The #1 job of PhD students and football players is not to do well in class. The #1 job of the PhD student is to do lots of research. Taking classes is mostly to learn some background information, although one or two classes will suffice for their research area. Of course, they need to take more classes to graduate. After the first few classes, all other classes are just for the sake of your own interest, to "make you a better person." Your advisor will also pressure you to spend more time on research and less time on classwork (assuming that you're not in danger of failing out). Obviously most coaches would rather their star football players focus on football rather than studying (assuming that they're not in danger of failing out).
As we can see, from a high level perspective, there are many similarities. The difference is that PhD students get a stipend, which varies based on the school and the location. Also schools may offer PhD students different amounts of money for their services based on how good they are. For example, an OSU PhD student choosing between OSU, MIT and Stanford will probably get a larger offer from OSU than one who just got into OSU. Stipends range between 15K to 30K a year, based on the department, school, and your attractiveness as a candidate.
Aside from these points, PhD students and football recruits share another similarity: recruiting visits. Obviously they aren't as lavish as the football recruiting visits, but schools still make an effort to wine and dine you, paying for your airplane tickets, hotel rooms, and gourmet food.
So if we wish to pay football students, how much money should they be offered? It shouldn't be too crazy: they're still basically amateurs, and frankly many smaller schools can't afford it. However, they should be paid enough to support themselves and possibly a family. Guess what? That sounds exactly like a PhD stipend! PhD stipends are already designed to support a student's living expenses and be able to just barely cover them if they already have a family. They are designed to be affordable for the school, competitive with other schools, and support the student based on the cost of living in the area.
Based on these facts, I propose that football and basketball student athletes be paid as much as the minimum PhD student stipend at the university (maybe multiplied by some value between 0 and 1 since athletes already have many aspects covered such as food). The stipend is enough to support them and encourages universities to pay their PhD students more money if they would like to raise the stipend for their sports players, thus fostering better research. The NCAA has said many times that student-athletes are students first, so now it's time for them to prove it or shut up. Making the football stipend based on some academic stipend is a good way to do it since it will improve the quality of graduate education as well as giving student athletes enough money to support themselves and their families back at home.
What if the school does not have a PhD program? An alternative strategy is to make the student athlete stipend based on the minimum professor salary. Here are some examples for what the student athlete salary can be:
Athlete Salary = A * (Teaching Assistant stipend)
Athlete Salary = B * (PhD stipend)
Athlete Salary = C * (Assistant Professor salary)
Where A and B are maybe between 0.5 and 1, and C is around 0.1 or so.
TLDR: Here's the main question that I'm posing: how do we distinguish between Div 1 basketball and football players from PhD students, in light of the fact that they both produce more value than what they receive?