College Athletes: Unpaid Interns and Indentured Servants

I’ve been writing about college football for what seems like forever, but in reality it’s only been about three years. So, when I say I thought I had previously written about my thoughts on paying student-athletes, it’s a legitimate statement. Turns out, I haven’t written about this at all. On with the unpopular and contrarian opinion that student-athletes shouldn’t be paid. I’ll go so far as to say they’re already receiving more than any other non-athletic student on a full scholarship is. Certainly the idea of a full scholarship in college only applies to a few sports, so I don’t want those who participate in non-revenue sports to think I’m slighting them; in fact, I think you should get paid (with a full scholarship) like those who participate in football and basketball.

This column is born from a conversation with Campus Pressbox Managing Editor Seth “Mini-Bilas” Merenbloom (@SMerenbloom).

From Mini-Bilas:

Why does Northwestern not being allowed to unionize mean that players can't be paid? Implication seems to be only unionized players could be I missing something?

My response (folks, I hate capitalization and punctuation, so you’ll just have to deal with it):

nuanced, but they could if schools conferences and ncaa wanted them to be paid. they arent - and im ok with that (unpopular, I know). not sure whos saying they cant based on yesterdays ruling - which b/c NW is private makes some sense, but the two shouldnt be tied together.

i equate college athletics to internships. some places pay [but] the vast majority dont. it isnt the only way to get to the professional ranks, but its the 'easiest' and most popular.

Let’s deep dive into this, and allow me to explain myself. I consider student-athletes unpaid interns. Like any unpaid internship, the company assumes all the risk by giving you a place to hone your skills and by paying the expenses of that training. The expenses for a private company are the people who train you (coaches, athletic staff) and people who treat you when you get carpal tunnel (medical staff). Companies also offer in-classroom training (degree programs) and housing (dorms).

And like any private company, any work and profit you generate is theirs. They are under no obligation to share those spoils with you, because when you agree to the unpaid internship you essentially understand ‘what it is’.

Is it fair? Nope. Do student-athletes put in tons of hours? Of course, but so do interns. I haven’t had to get a cup of coffee at my job in many years, but if an intern does that and anything else I ask them to do very well, there’s a chance they'll get to move to the next level.

In college football specifically, that next level is the National Football League.

To put this in simpler terms, you graduate from your favorite university with a communications degree and someone decides to ‘hire’ you as an intern for the summer, but puts you in charge of their social media strategy. In turn, you do such a great job they hire you because you’ve boosted sales, social engagement and all those important metrics. Do you, at the end of your internship, demand they share the profits with you?

Of course not, because you aren’t stupid.

And student-athletes shouldn’t be stupid.

Why can’t they work?

More from Mini-Bilas:

[I] would like to see the NCAA at least let them make some from working at camps and that sort of thing.

Sure, and I think that kids in the summer should have jobs, but when they do they should show up to work. And while I’d like to believe most employers and most kids would be honest, I don’t trust ultra-booster-dude. Ultra-booster-dude is the guy who gives the kid a job, pays him equal or more than anyone else, and doesn’t make him actually show up to work.

The toughest part of this is obviously enforcement. In general, I don’t trust schools to police themselves, and I don’t think the N.C.A.A. should waste its limited resources on hiring an enforcement staff large enough to take this one.

As an aside, I would prefer the N.C.A.A. independently control compliance at campuses as opposed to having the schools do this themselves. Again, trust no one. Make the newly installed compliance people change schools often and move to different regions. Give them power to make decisions, but make sure they’re trained and are fair and balanced [insert FOX News/N.C.A.A. joke if you must].

But to my above argument, if you’re an unpaid intern at my job, you probably aren’t going to have time or energy to have another job. At least you shouldn’t if you’re goal is to get to the next level.

Better than a student-athlete?

There are people on college campuses today that have it better than student-athletes. They’re the kids who receive full academic scholarships to universities. That N.C.A.A. saying ISN’T wrong; most student athletes will “go pro in something other than sports.” So, why waste your time being the eighth man on Jim Harbaugh’s depth chart when you can enjoy Michigan’s world-renowned law school?

If you have a choice between working hard academically during the school year, having college paid for, along with not having any summer responsibilities of working out and getting to see your friends OR missing almost every holiday and vacation for a sport you probably won’t play at the next level, which would you choose?

Clearly, the answer is the academic scholarship. Sports is nice, trust me, I know, but not having to have old dudes yell at you because you aren’t running fast enough is better.

So, while I certainly understand that many people see the amounts of money schools bring in because of the hard work student-athletes do, remember that less than 30 FBS schools turn a profit every year. In fact, many actually balance their athletic budgets with subsidies from the non-student-athlete students. If you really want to pay student-athletes we can, but it likely will come at the high cost of ending scholarships for other kids who most likely won’t have another path to higher education.

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