I won’t get into the issue of fairness. I understand the perception: universities, conferences, coaches, and the NCAA are making truckloads of cash from athletics, but the college athletes are not getting paychecks, despite their contribution to the system. That, on a most primitive level, just doesn’t seem fair.
I also don’t want to get into the logistical and legal challenges of paying college athletes or allowing them to profit from their names, likenesses, and fame through appearances, autograph signings, etc. That’s not my issue either.
Rather, my problem in this recent debate over paying college athletes is that there seems to be no value placed on what the college athlete is currently getting: a free education. A free college education seems to be an afterthought or dismissed altogether. That sends an awful message.
I’ve spent a lot of time with young black men who truly feel their options in life are the NBA, the NFL, rapping , or the streets. One young man told me last year that if rapping didn’t work out, he’d go back to robbing people. That was his life plan. It is impossible to simply tell that young man and others like him, “go to college!” Education is a tough sell to young people who haven’t had the value of education explained to them and instilled in them early and often.
Young adults with college degrees earn more than those without degrees. The current unemployment rate among college graduates is 3.7%, but graduates these days are leaving college with an average of over $35,000 in debt. Meanwhile, the probability of a high school basketball player eventually making it to the NBA is .03%. For a high school football player making it to the NFL, it’s .08%. An education, especially a free one, is of incredible value, even for most big-time athletes. We devalue it when we argue that college athletes are getting nothing in return.
Of course, the current debate is really about the superstar athletes in the major sports who bring eyes to the TV screens, put fans in the seats, and bring attention to their schools. But, the national debate can often come off as if ALL athletes are being cheated because they’re only getting a free education. I hate the message that’s sending: that working your butt off to be a scholarship-worthy athlete only pays off if you get paid cash in college.
Yes, being athletically gifted and working at your sport can lead to great rewards, but please, add free college education to that list.