Budget & Finance

The High School Effect of Paying NCAA Student-Athletes

By Bryan Toporek — July 28, 2011 3 min read
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The drumbeats have been only growing louder for the concept of a pay-for-play system for NCAA student-athletes. Two high-profile cases in college football this past year—Cam Newton of Auburn and Terrelle Pryor of Ohio State—have raised serious questions about the viability of a multimillion-dollar college-sports empire that pays student-athletes only in the form of scholarships.

The Big Ten conference discussed paying student-athletes’ living expenses at its recent spring meetings, noting that athletic scholarships leave student-athletes paying roughly $3,000 out of pocket each year for transportation, clothing, and food. University of South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier also concocted a plan earlier this year wherein football coaches would pay 70 players on the team $300 each for every single game of the season.

Even NCAA President Mark Emmert plans on discussing the possibility of paying student-athletes’ living expenses at a two-day retreat he’ll hold with roughly 50 college and university presidents in early August. Granted, it’s tough to say how open for debate Emmert will be; back in January, he said, “Student-athletes are students. They’re not professionals, and we’re not going to pay them and we’re not going to allow other people to pay them to play.” (He made similar comments in May.)

One aspect of the pay-for-play debate that’s largely gone unexposed: the effect that such a system could have on high school sports. While high school student-athletes wouldn’t be directly affected, there’s no denying that a pay-for-play system would have a trickle-down effect at the high school level.

What’s Being Discussed?

ESPN.com ran a weeklong feature on pay-for-play earlier this summer, and in one piece, had Mark Schlereth break down the different proposals circulating around, with one major exception (*see below).

Beyond the full-cost scholarship idea and the stipend idea discussed above, Schlereth examined the concept of allowing star athletes to receive royalties from the sale of their college jerseys, with the money potentially going into an escrow account until the player exhausts his/her eligibility.

As Schlereth noted, NCAA communications veep Bob Williams rained on that parade in a recent ESPN.com chat, saying, “The school name, the colors, that’s really the school’s and the institution’s property. It’s hard to say that the student-athlete “owns” that jersey or it’s his jersey.”

Schlereth’s article last tackled the “pay players who actually make the schools money” idea—one that he openly admits won’t stand a chance against Title IX, which requires schools that receive federal funding to provide equal athletic opportunities to both males and females.

One of the fundamental problems with the pay-for-play debate is that very few college-sports teams are actually profitable. In fact, only 22 programs reported profitability in 2010, according to the NCAA’s 2004-2010 Revenues & Expenses report


Not a single women’s program (in whole) was profitable, and a grand total of one women’s college-basketball team turned a profit last season. (The report didn’t name the women’s team, but here’s guessing it’s either Geno Auriemma’s dynasty at the University of Connecticut or Pat Summitt’s squad at the University of Tennessee.) On the other hand, 69 football teams (58 percent of the 120 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision) and 67 men’s basketball teams (56 percent) reported profitability last season. Over the past seven seasons, between 50 and 60 percent of the football and men’s basketball teams have been profitable, according to the report.

Long story short, colleges

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.