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Questions About How to Do Pay-for-Play Are Not Dealbreakers

Sometimes what seems like a reason not to do something is better thought of as an obstacle that needs to be overcome. For example, this quote from Ivy League executive director Robin Harris:

“Do you pay the starting quarterback more than the third-string lineman, and how do you balance gender equity?” she said. “If you want to do pay-for-play, then remove it from the educational model.”

There are three objections to pay-for-play wrapped up in those two sentences:

  • Figuring out a fair pay-for-play scheme is too complicated.
  • Complying with Title IX is impossible if football and basketball players are paid significantly more than a scholarship.
  • Professional athletics is incompatible with higher education.

Only one of those is a real argument against pay-for-play, the third one. That argument questions the value of an institution of higher learning running a professional sports team whose main value may be as entertainment. And the head of the Ivy League is uniquely positioned in Division I athletics to make that argument.

Title IX is not an argument against pay-for-play, it is an obstacle. Saying gender equity needs to be balanced and that might be impossible does not address the merits of paying athletes. It simply raises the costs. It may the raise the cost prohibitively high, but there are plenty of small and drastic measures that could be exhausted first, like cutting all sports except for football, men’s basketball, and women’s sports necessary to satisfy Title IX. The Title IX obstacle needs to backed with another argument, that those other sports should not be cut.

The complexity of a pay-for-play scheme is another obstacle, but is so small it is a poor argument in favor of amateurism. In the majority of NCAA sports, some athletes receive less than others. The top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher on a Division I baseball team gets a larger scholarship than a utility infielder. FCS football coaches spread 63 scholarships over 85 student-athletes, which essentially requires a form of cap space management. Even headcount sports like FBS football and basketball have some athletes on scholarship and some athletes who walk on.

Many of the knock-on effects to paying athletes different amounts of money already exist in college athletics. Prospects shop around and try to play coaches against each other to get the biggest scholarship offer. Coaches have to deal with student-athletes who are upset because they believe they are outperforming teammates with larger scholarships. Financial realities intervene and an athlete decides to commit to a university or transfer for no reason other than a scholarship large enough to make school affordable.

If leaders in college athletics are now focused more on the obstacles to pay-for-play than arguments against it, the debate is already lost. Arguing over the impact on higher education or questioning whether professional athletics is an appropriate venue for what is in essence the government are arguments against professionalization. But once issues like some athletes being paid more than others or even Title IX are raised, the debate is shifts from whether we should pay athletes to whether we can, which concedes the more important point to pay-for-play advocates.

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