The Argument for Contracts in College Sports

There is an age-old debate that has really been magnified in the past few years: should college athletes be paid? There are clearly arguments to be made for either side, and it seems as if everyone has an opinion on the matter. The question was magnified earlier this year when the Northwestern football team voted to unionize, a monumental moment in the push for college athletes to be paid, that many people supported.

While college athletes being paid would be a fantastic thing, I believe it should be taken a step further than that: college athletes should sign contracts with schools in a free market system.

Jay Bilas, a “voice of the players”, is very critical of the NCAA

Jay Bilas, an ESPN college basketball analyst, has been very critical of the NCAA and their model of “amateurism”, and he advocates a free market system in college sports. In Bilas’ free market system, athletes would sign contracts with schools like professional athletes sign with teams. Schools would offer athletes a certain amount of money over a certain amount of years, and instead of these athletes just “committing” to a school as they do now, they would actually pick a school based on who offers the best overall package, with contract included. In these contracts, schools could also use clauses that protect themselves from losing the player due to transfer or early entry to the NBA or NFL, among other things.

People could make the argument that it would make the playing field more uneven than it is now; however, this is not necessarily the case. Now, top recruits usually only go to the top schools. However, under a new system, a smaller school may decide that they really would a top recruit such as Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker. If a smaller school offered them enough money and outbid the likes of Kansas and Duke, maybe they could land one of these guys. And, if they had a clause requiring them to stay in school more than one year, they would have these recruits for a long period of time.

Would Jabari Parker have gone to Duke if another school could offer him a bigger contract?

The idea of contracts in college sports can be easily related to a combination of ideas from Thomas Hobbes’ and John Locke’s social contracts.

In Hobbes’ state of nature, three things lead to “quarrel”: competition, glory, and diffidence. In this case, glory and competition are the most important. Hobbes believes glory occurs when people take pleasure in having and obtaining power. In this case, many people (including Bilas) believe that the NCAA is hoarding much of the power by not allowing student-athletes to receive compensation, thus taking away almost all of the say they have in matters. Also, with Hobbes’ idea of competition for scarce resources, the NCAA takes away the power of all of the athletes to compete for said resources, and allows themselves and its schools to keep more.

John Locke’s ideals apply to contracts in college sports

With all of that said, ideas from Locke’s social contract are more prevalent here. In Locke’s idea of human nature, people are self-interested and rational (this is also true for Hobbes, but Hobbes has other ideas that throw off this model). In college sports, everyone – athletes, schools, and NCAA officials – want what is best, ultimately, for themselves. While the NCAA obviously wants great athletes (better athletes improve their bottom line), their number one concern is money, and in self-interest, they make sure athletes can’t have any so they can have all of it.

With contracts, college sports would be much more fair. Just as Locke believes contracts are in place to protect people’s property, contracts in college sports would allow athletes to protect (or in this case, receive for the first time) what is rightfully theirs – money that they earn for a university.

Throughout NCAA history, many famous scandals have occurred due to athletes receiving “illegal benefits”, with the usual case being the athlets selling autographs for money. Recently, an example of a player accused of this is Georgia RB Todd Gurley. Gurley was suspended for four games in the midst of his Heisman-quality season due to making somewhere around $400 on autographs.

According to Locke, another reason contracts are important is that people are bad judges in their own cases. With Gurley, the NCAA acted as a judge in a case where they also made the rule and then enforced it, without any collaboration from the players’ side. I would say this is the NCAA being a judge in their own case, and Locke would say that the NCAA would be a bad judge here, leading to disputes. With contracts, this could be avoided.

Todd Gurley would be in Heisman contention if he was not suspended

Lastly, we discussed in lecture what kinds of relationships should and should not have contracts. While the outlook on personal relationships were somewhat hazy, we agreed that business relationships and others where there were significant financial implications involved, there should be contracts. Clearly, the relationship between players and the NCAA is not personal in the slightest, and millions of dollars are involved (for some athletes, they generate millions of dollars for their school alone).

All in all, in a free market system with contracts in college sports, fairness would be ensured all around. Athletes would be able to paid and be protected from schools taking advantage of their likenesses, while lower schools would have more of a shot at landing top players and would be protected from transfer or misbehavior. While this happens, the NCAA would lose some of its power to be corrupt. This would be a good scenario for everyone.


3 thoughts on “The Argument for Contracts in College Sports

  1. Like others have said before me, I really do enjoy the argument you present about college sports and the “pay for play” debate. While I agree that compensation for college athletes is imperative and should be implemented immediately, I am not sure yet as to if you and Jay Bilas’ solution would be the best fit for the dilemma. While I see your point that *in theory* the “contract system” in college athletics would bridge the gap between schools with large endowments/traditional powers in the sport, but on the contrary I believe that it would create a larger gap.

    As others mentioned before me, if there were standard bidding wars for the talent like a Jabari Parker or in football like a Jabrill Peppers, I do not know exactly if it would change how kids pick the schools they attend. In some cases like Peppers, these players have grown up a fan of a certain school or their family has gone to school there, and they are already biased to a certain recruiter. Central Michigan could come in and offer a ridiculous sum of money that Michigan could not match(which would obviously never happen), and Jabrill would still commit to Michigan regardless of the contract offered by Michigan. Your idea is very insightful, just I feel you are neglecting to address the human aspect of recruiting with young people.

    All and all, I enjoyed your post and I think that in the next 10 years, some form of compensation will exist for college athletes playing the main revenue sports of College Football and Men’s Basketball. Perhaps a contract system will be installed, but I do not think to the extreme that you are describing in your post. Best!


  2. While I definitely think your idea of a free market for players to sign with any school they want is an interesting one, I don’t think it is a feasible solution in college sports right now. I also am an advocate for players to be paid in college, but I think allowing schools to pay as much as they want to a certain player like in professional sports is not a good idea. If that were the case, I think the big schools with the big boosters would pay as much as possible for as many star players as they could. Let’s say a smaller school did offer more money to Jabari Parker than Duke; they would have no money left to sign anyone else, because they would have used all their money on Parker. The big schools with the most money could still tell their recruits, “hey, come to my school because we’re going to pay you and these three other stars the same amount of money, so you don’t feel slighted.” Also, 18 year old kids who will never make it professionally shouldn’t be paid large sums of money to go play at places like Bucknell. One idea I am in favor of is giving every player a stipend, and every player one a team get the same amount of money. For example, every player on the Michigan football team gets $1000 a month, and same goes for basketball. At other smaller schools, it may be something like $800 or even $500 a month, but at least everyone on the team is paid equally. Maybe a long way down the road your idea will come to fruition, but I think it is too big of a job right now.


  3. I think this is a very interesting view on the pay for play debate. I like the idea of non-power house schools having a shot at landing top recruits like Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins and I do think that these players deserve a cut of the profits that they are directly earning for a school, but I also think there’s a limit. You mentioned smaller schools being able to offer athletes like a Jabari Parker or an Andrew Wiggins a huge contract to come play for their smaller school, but I really don’t like the idea of college athletes getting huge paychecks to play. I’m all for players getting some compensation– but not the outrageous amounts of money that professional athletes make. If this is what collegiate athletics turns into, what’s the difference between college basketball and the NBA? I think allowing these young students to make millions of dollars at this young age would be a huge mistake– unless they could possibly take classes on how to be responsible with that money.

    Also, let’s not forget the value of an education. I really liked your point about how a contract would lock students into their institution for 4 years- hopefully so that they can get their degree. There are so many stories of college athletes who leave early to go pro and then when it doesn’t pan out, they don’t have their degree to fall back on. Paying for these kids to go to college and giving them the platform to succeed is a 6-figure venture for each collegiate athlete under scholarship. I really don’t think they deserve that much more money- unless they are someone like Todd Gurley, who is generating the University of Georgia plenty of money from his jersey sales and such. In that case, I think Gurley should be entitled to sign all the autographs he wants and get a cut of his jersey royalties, but I don’t think it should go beyond that. Players should have the opportunity to market themselves if they want to, but I don’t think it should be something that the colleges themselves are actively participating in. I guess in conclusion, I would say that I like the idea of a contract to keep kids in college for 4 years and making sure that they profit from their marketability, but I am against paying them large sums of money because it against the values of a college education and the basis of collegiate athletics.


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