College football players in a line on the field during a game.

In Defense of Compensating Student-Athletes

Last Monday, the Supreme Court made a decision that could significantly impact the lives of student-athletes. The Court ruled against the National College Athletic Association to allow student-athletes to receive education-related payments of up to $6,000 a year and unlimited non-cash education-related benefits (CNN). College sports bring in billions of dollars of revenue each year. The 2019 March Madness tournament was estimated to have brought $1.18 billion in advertising revenue for CBS and Turner Sports, with networks paying about $800 million for the rights (CNBC). Given the profitability of college athletics, it would be expected that athletes receive fair compensation for their labor.

In reality, college athletes are not compensated beyond scholarships and possibly a stipend. College athletes could be paid similarly to professional athletes if not for NCAA amateurism rules barring payment by their schools. Student-athletes are not considered employees and are therefore not protected by federal employment laws that allow other workers to unionize and demand fair compensation for their labor (CNBC).


Sign the #paytheplayers petition to demand fair pay for college athletes in every state.

• Support the College Athlete Advocacy Initiative, which advocates and provides legal support for college athletes.

College athletes sign their names and likeness to their schools but are not permitted to receive compensation for playing (The Guardian). Student-athletes work full-time, often 30-40 hours a week, on top of their academic course load. With only 1.6% of college football players and 1.2% of college basketball players getting drafted into major professional leagues, the majority of them will not go on to a career in professional sports. Though they are “compensated” with scholarships, graduation rates are significantly lower for student-athletes than non-student athletes, and many report lackluster academic support and challenges finding post-college employment (The Guardian).

These athletes often suffer chronic injuries playing for coaches who are the highest-paid public employees in 39 states (IPS). A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that athletic department revenue doubled in the last 14 years—along with salaries for coaches and athletic department administrators. While the athletic staff is generously compensated, revenue-generating athletes are considered “amateurs” and therefore receive little to nothing in what’s been described as “the injustice of fake amateurism” (The Nation).
Black students comprise only 5.7% of the population at Power Five schools but make up 55.9% of men’s basketball players, 55.6% of men’s football players, and 48.1% of women’s basketball players. On condition of anonymity, many student-athletes discussed what The Guardian described as “the racist dimensions of their experiences at Power Five PWIs” (predominantly white institutions). Many described the power imbalance between schools and Black athletes and reported feeling exploited and pressured not to express opinions or take on interests outside the sports they played (The Guardian).

Both professional and college athletics have a history of racism and exploitation. Initially, professional sports were segregated, with Black players excluded from Major League Baseball until 1946, when Jackie Robinson joined the Montreal Royals, then later the Brooklyn Dodgers. The National Hockey League still has a majority of white players, and when Black players do come onto the rink, they are often subject to racist abuse from fans (McGill Tribune).

The recent Supreme Court decision will not lead to full compensation for student-athletes as it only applies to educational payments and benefits. However, it invites further challenges to the NCAA ban on paying athletes. Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote, “nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate” (NYT). Effectively, if this decision were to be successfully challenged further in the Supreme Court, it could entirely change how student-athletes are compensated and open up the door for more opportunities for them.

Student-athletes are workers and should be compensated as such. They should be permitted to earn money from their names, images, and likenesses that bring in billions of dollars of revenue for the NCAA, schools, and the broadcasting industry. A 2020 survey found that two-thirds of adults believe that college athletes should reap some of the profits generated by their hard work (Forbes). The NCAA must change its unfair policies regarding student-athletes.


• The NCAA prohibits student-athletes from receiving compensation as “amateurs.”

• College sports are a billion-dollar industry. Coaches are generously compensated, while players receive little more than a scholarship.

• A recent Supreme Court decision allows education-related compensation for college athletes, though the NCAA still bans direct payments.

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