Don’t listen to Obama—we need to start paying college athletes

Every year, March Madness captures the Internet's attention, but are college basketball players being exploited by it?


Josh Katzowitz

Internet Culture

Published Mar 25, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 5:43 am CDT

In an interview with the Huffington Post this week, President Barack Obama said what everybody who follows college sports should know by heart. Since the schools and administrators make so much money off its collegiate players, it’s unfair that these student-athletes (with an emphasis on the latter half of that phrase) are placed on scholarships that aren’t guaranteed beyond the end of the school year. Obama agrees.

“[T]he students need to be taken better care of because they are generating a lot of revenue here,” Obama told the website. “An immediate step that the NCAA could take—that some conferences have already taken—is if you offer a scholarship to a kid coming into school, that scholarship sticks, no matter what. It doesn’t matter whether they get cut, it doesn’t matter whether they get hurt. You are now entering into a bargain and [are] responsible for them.”

And as we all should know, it’s not accurate to use the words “collegiate” and “amateur” sports as synonyms, because coaches and athletic directors make tremendous salaries and bonuses off the players’ success, while those same players make nothing more than the scholarship that could be snatched away the next season. Obama agrees with that, as well.

“What does frustrate me is where I see coaches getting paid millions of dollars, athletic directors getting paid millions of dollars, the NCAA making huge amounts of money, and then some kid gets a tattoo or gets a free use of a car, and suddenly they’re banished,” Obama said. “That’s not fair.”

Since he’s said all of the above, it would make sense that Obama also is in favor of compensating players beyond the limits of their scholarship. Maybe some extra dough that would allow them to go out for a pizza once in a while or to bowl a couple frames. On this point, though, Obama doesn’t agree.

“In terms of compensation, I think the challenge would just then start being, do we really want to just create a situation where there are bidding wars?” Obama said. “How much does an Anthony Davis [a former University of Kentucky star] get paid as opposed to somebody else? And that I do think would ruin the sense of college sports.”

Obama had the first two parts of the equation correct, but he bricked the finale like he’s the nation’s worst 3-point shooter.

The NCAA and its members shouldn’t have the ability to treat a player like he’s in the meat market that some will experience in the pro ranks. The NCAA and its members shouldn’t pay coaches and athletic directors millions of dollars a year, while the players they’re in charge of scramble to find money for dinner. The NCAA and its members should reward athletes for all the money they generate for their schools, the TV networks that pay billions to televise the NCAA basketball tournament, and NCAA president Mark Emmert (who reportedly made $1.7 million in 2012).

The NCAA and its members shouldn’t have the ability to treat a player like he’s in the meat market that some will experience in the pro ranks. 

My favorite example of an AD or coach profiting directly off the back of an athlete was last year when the Associated Press revealed that by virtue of Logan Stieber’s third-straight NCAA wrestling title, Ohio State AD Gene Smith earned (ahem, “earned”) an $18,000 bonus. Smith’s base salary that year, by the way, was already about $940,000.

Although a recent poll revealed that more Americans support not compensating players, the tide of not doing so is turning. Last August, a federal judge ruled that players are entitled to revenue when schools and the NCAA use their names, images, and likenesses. That same month, the NCAA voted to give the five power conferences (the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac 12, along with Notre Dame) the autonomy to pay players an extra $2,000 to $5,000, and the NCAA revealed in January that players’ parents would be gifted a substantial stipend that would allow them to travel for the football playoffs and the men’s and women’s Final Four.

That’s nice, but it’s not enough. It’s not nearly enough.

Just ask Seattle Seahawks superstar cornerback Richard Sherman, who played at Stanford from 2006-10.

“[Critics] are upset when a student-athlete says they need a little cash,” Sherman said last January. “Well, I can tell you from experience, I had negative 40 bucks in my account. Usually, my account was in the negative more time than it was in the positive. You’ve got to make decisions on whether you get gas for your car or whether you get a meal for the day. You’ve got one of the two choices.”

It shouldn’t be that way, of course.

But should all college athletes be paid like the football and basketball players who generate the most revenue? What about the women’s soccer player? The men’s gymnast? The female tennis player? The male hurdler? How do you pay all those student athletes?

My answer to that: I don’t know. But in lieu of a solution to that problem, here’s a anecdote from 1957.

That’s nice, but it’s not enough. It’s not nearly enough.

Before he was president of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson was a congressman from Texas, a place that was slow—if not outright hostile—to the idea of abolishing Jim Crow laws and allowing the emblem of freedom to set everybody’s heart aglow. By the time, he was the Senate majority leader—a historically weak position that Johnson strengthened mightily—Johnson knew that if he was ever to be elected president, Congress needed to pass a Civil Rights bill that would allow black people to win some rights but also be toothless enough so as not to enrage the South, whose support he needed for higher office.

Johnson helped gut the bill before passing it, enraging many liberals who believed that no bill would be better than the one Johnson was touting. But one of Johnson’s main arguments for Congress to pass the first Civil Rights bill in more than 80 years was this, according to wonderful biographer Robert A. Caro: Passing the first bill is more important than what that bill actually says. The next Civil Rights bill, Johnson claimed over and over again, would be easier to pass, because a previous bill already existed.

History showed Johnson to be correct.

It’s the same story here. Give some athletes the money they deserve, and legislation that benefits everybody will be easier to pass the next time around.

For all the student-athletes who practice for much of the day and study for most of the night, for those who brutalize themselves in the weight room, and for those who make their schools and conference so much freakin’ money, it’s the only fair thing to do.

That’s what Gene Smith realized. The Ohio State AD who took home $18,000 due to Logan Stieber’s accomplishments changed his mind at the beginning of this year, restructuring his contract to make sure he didn’t receive those types of bonuses in the future. Stieber won his fourth-straight NCAA championship last weekend, and Smith didn’t directly profit.

Smith finally did what was right. Obama, the NCAA, and all of its higher-education institutions could learn something from that.

Photo via bp6316/Flickr (CC by 2.0)

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*First Published: Mar 25, 2015, 4:50 pm CDT