College Football, Inc.
With the start of the college football season this weekend, a columnist for CNNSI.com has called for college football players to be paid by the universities they attend. He argues that “[t]hese colleges are acting like big businesses. Well, big businesses pay their talent.” Certainly college athletic departments pay their administrators and coaches very well, with more than two dozen college football head coaches making more than $2 million last year. Even some top assistant coaches make nearly half a million a year. So, if the administrators and coaches get rich off college football, why not pay the players as well? It’s an intuitive argument, one that you hear a lot if you follow college athletics. But without defending the eye-popping salaries prevailing these days in college sports, I think the case for paying college football players usually rests on a false premise.
The fallacy often underlying the argument is an assumption that universities make a great deal of money off athletics. That’s not necessarily true at all. The NCAA reported last week that the athletic departments of only 14 out of 120 schools that play in the Football Bowl Subdivision (the highest level of college football—once known as Division I) actually made money off college athletics during fiscal year 2009. What’s more, the profits of the athletic departments at even those 14 schools are not that likely to flow out of the athletic department and back in the university budget. Sure, there are exceptions, and the University of Georgia recently announced that the UGA athletic department would donate $2 million to the university last year, but it’s just as or more likely in the run of cases that the university subsidizes the athletic department in a significant way through shared or subsidized expenses such as facilities and physical plant, academic tutoring, admissions concessions, and general maintenance. In short, only a handful of universities actually make a profit from college athletics from year to year, and only a relatively small amount of money finds its way back to the larger university.
And whatever profitability there is in college athletics for a handful of schools depends almost entirely on the availability of free labor provided by the athletes. Of course, this is the basis of the argument for paying football players, but once the labor is no longer free, college football rapidly becomes even less profitable than it is now. At minimum, paying football players any meaningful stipend would end in large measure any athletic cross-subsidy that hopes to use football profits to fund non-revenue sports like track & field and gymnastics. That’s the main use of any profits from college football right now. Even universities that make money on college football likely would need to shutter secondary sports to help pay the football players. For universities that do not consistently make money on college football, paying football players makes the sport even more expensive and no longer economically sustainable for at least some. Maybe all this is fine, but it’s not obvious that it is.
In other words, the case for paying football players rests on an assumption that college football is a great financial deal for the universities, but it is so only for a very few universities, and actually not so much at all for most for the rest. And when you it make it an even worse deal for universities, such that college football would not subsidize other sports where the ideals of amateur athletics are real, then many universities may not have sufficiently compelling reasons to continue bearing the high costs of college football, whether practiced forthrightly as a big business or not. After all, as a matter of equity to the players, the package of benefits that universities offer them right now is more than attractive enough that every single scholarship football player accepts it even without being a paid formal stipend. What is more, it’s difficult to find persuasive arguments for public and private universities, consistent with their educational mission, to sponsor what amounts to a minor league for the NFL, as opposed to letting it pay for its own like Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. A fully professional sport, if that is what college football is to become, should be able to support itself in the market without nonprofit sponsorship, and the association of colleges and what became minor-league football has always been a historical accident. Now, I doubt that the dismantling of college football as big business is very likely, but I’m also doubtful that the more sensible path is professionalizing college athletics even further.