The Ethics of College Sports

At the Sports Symposium put on the the LSA Theme Semester, I had the opportunity to listen to different speakers, two of which had arguments that were incredibly pertinent to what we have covered in class, albeit in different ways. Bruce Berglund discussed the massive amounts of money that universities put towards college athletics, oftentimes at the expense of students who are not athletes. He discussed the fact that colleges advertise, in their brochures and tours, the “party” of college- eating, hanging out with friends, and going to sporting events. However, colleges do not advertise academics as much, since they are not as enticing to potential out-of-state students shelling out the big bucks to attend these universities. For many schools, a portion of the students’ tuition goes to athletics- a visible branch of the university. For example, at Ball State, $610 a year of the students’ tuitions go to subsidies for athletics. Around a fourth of these fees go to coaches’ salaries. In class, we debated whether student athletes should be compensated or not. We brought up the O’Bannon case, in which he believes he should be compensated for his likeness being displayed in a video game. Some of the arguments said that students should be paid, because they end up turning a profit for many of the universities. It is true that some of the larger revenue programs, such as the University of Michigan’s, do not compensate students, yet they use non-student athletes’ tuition dollars to give scholarships to students who, according to Berglund, can afford college.

Ed O’Bannon playing for UCLA

Berglund believes that students in need should get scholarships; however, he argues that many of the student-athletes who get scholarships are not students in need but actually come from largely affluent, or at least well-off, families.  Conducting a study based on the “Faces in the Crowd” section of Sports Illustrated, Berglund found that most of the high school athletes featured in the magazine came from affluent suburbs with parents willing to pay for top-of-the-line equipment, coaches, and elite programs. Subsequently making the argument that many students are paying for athletes to go to school when they could already pay for themselves, Berglund thinks that athletic scholarships are really for a family’s ability to invest in their child’s talent. Therefore, referring to the discussion we had in class, I do not believe athletes should be compensated for their sports within the current structure of college sports. There is no sufficient sorting mechanism to pick and choose which student-athletes are privileged, or unprivileged, enough.

However, the next speaker at the symposium, Jack Hamilton, brought about a different argument that made me rethink my viewpoint entirely. He discussed the dearth of options offered to young athletes participating in sports such as football and basketball. If talented high school graduates want to eventually go pro, they have no choice other than to play in college as a student-athlete. These athletes don’t get compensated, even though some of them get injured to the point that their careers are over- before they get the chance to step on a professional field or court. This is potentially due to coaches acting in their own best interests to protect their job security and salaries, which were also discussed by Berglund. He argues that the NFL and NBA both use the NCAA as a minor-league of sorts. Again, the O’Bannon case comes into play here: shouldn’t these “minor-league” players be compensated if they will be used for profit and eventually turn pro? It seems that within Dunning’s definition of professionalism in sport, these athletes fit the bill. Their sports are essentially their jobs, and while they may not make money off of their talents, the NCAA, and ultimately the NFL and NBA do.

Hamilton proposed what he even admitted is a radical idea, but an interesting one. He thinks that it would be beneficial for their to be minor leagues for the NBA and NFL.  A college could even purchase one of these teams and have it play as its school team, turn a profit, and even compensate players, without having to take more of students’ tuition dollars without giving anything to players. Players would then definitely fit Dunning’s professional idea of sport, and they would be happy at getting paid. Although smaller revenue sports would not have compensation, it would be understandable- since they would not be minor league teams. Furthermore, this would be in keeping with Menand’s First Theory– that the elite and best should be rewarded in a system of meritocracy. The best players in the most popular sports should, then, get paid.


One thought on “The Ethics of College Sports

  1. I do think that NCAA should keep going with their sets of rules by not paying the athletes in school. You are right that maybe some athletes come in to college just for sports and will go professional after but there are a lot of athletes that want a good education as well as a degree. As an athlete as well, i think that if minor leagues are incorporated into college and athletes are getting paid to play, the college sport atmosphere will be lost. People will just view these minor league just the same as they view professional leagues.


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