In the next few days, the last four teams play for the NCAA men's basketball championship, a hugely profitable event for college sports.
Arguments over money and big-time college athletics are more feverish than usual these days. A group of Northwestern University athletes won the first round of a National Labor Relations Board battle to be recognized as university employees and be permitted to unionize. There is also a lawsuit over rights to marketing, and another that claims the NCAA violates antitrust laws by capping athletes' compensation at the value of an athletic scholarship.
At the heart of all these cases is a question: Should student-athletes be paid or otherwise compensated beyond scholarships?
All Things Considered host Robert Siegel put the question to Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami. She says it's not easy to answer. For one, many athletic programs aren't profitable; they could never afford to pay their student-athletes.
"Our athletic program at the University of Miami is subsidized by the university — millions of dollars, in fact — and I would argue that most of the programs in this country are in the same situation," she says.
We also put the question to readers on NPR.org, Facebook and Twitter. We asked: "Should student-athletes be paid? If so, how much and in what form?" Some answers have been edited for length/clarity.
"No more than the average wage of other student workers on campus (i.e. dining halls, administrative work, recreation center staff, student research assistants, etc.). Student athletes are first students, and this is something that is often forgotten. If schools begin to "hire" students solely based on their athletic ability, this distorts the meaning of college for these individuals in the first place, and college becomes a job rather than a place to expand the mind and grow as an individual."
"If a college athlete is good enough, they will go on to make millions of dollars in professional sports. If they are not good enough to turn pro, then, after representing their school as an athlete (which is an honor in and of itself), they leave college with a degree from a prestigious university, and no student loans. In this day and age, that should be all the compensation they need."
"As a former college athlete I believe athletes should not be paid as professionals. First off, few schools in the NCAA can even afford to pay their athletes. Unless you're a men's (emphasis on men's) basketball or football player for one of those large schools regularly featured on ESPN you won't see a dime more than the limited scholarship you're already pulling. And good luck trying to find the extra cash to pay any women athletes."
"I am a former Division I athlete. Amateurism status provides athletes with a vital and much needed set period of time for the collegiate athlete to learn, develop and mature within an environment fueled by the true essence of athletic competition — amateurism — participating in sport for the love of the game. When money enters the collegiate athletic equation, the sport, at its most fundamental level, becomes nothing other than a business."
Yes — Scholarship + Stipend/Compensation
"Yes, of course. My initial reaction is to cover the costs of tuition and living expenses and to offer them a stipend commensurate with the sport and relative danger (e.g. students at risk of a concussion should be paid more). That said, I'd be open to other systems — provided that they ensure students who play sports do not have to take out loans to pay for school or living expenses."
"Regardless of direct compensation, college athletes should receive workers' compensation, life insurance and medical care for injuries sustained while engaging in college athletics."
Yes — Scholarship + Royalties/Revenues
"Athletes whose likenesses/names are used in video games, on jerseys, etc. should be allowed to sign contracts for the use of their image, much like professional athletes. That way, the school is not responsible for payment to any athletes, though the ones who are contracted with outside vendors are allowed to share, at least in part, in the profits that their likenesses generate."
"Yes, college athletes should be paid with athletes receiving a set percentage of each school's revenue for the sport. However, payments should be tied to academic achievement, which would provide students an incentive to focus on academics as well as athletics. The NCAA should set up an independent commission to audit student athlete academic records. Auditors would randomly attend scheduled classes and review graded papers to ensure academic compliance."
On why the ACC couldn't get a stipend passed for all student-athletes
Because we are the NCAA. It's not some independent regulatory agency that we're not part of. The board is made up of NCAA schools, and all of the governance is under the jurisdiction of the universities that are members of the NCAA. Some schools objected to it for good reason — they couldn't financially afford it. And to impose that kind of money and that kind of requirement — and as long as it's one person, one vote on these stipends, it's never going to pass.
On why there seems to be more money in college sports — except when it comes to paying athletes
Our tuition keeps going up, and we add more services for our students. I've seen us take care of emergencies for student-athletes — flying their parents in an emergency, taking care of all the health needs of athletes, no matter what their sport. So that money is spent on lots of differing things for athletes, including, at this institution, a very expensive, tuition/room and board package which amounts to about $55,000 per year for each athlete.
On whether or not the NCAA might be forced to change
I think organizations like the NCAA and universities themselves have to recognize that the world has changed. But it may not be the discussion that you and I are talking about — paying student-athletes. It may be the support systems that we provide, the decisions that we make. Fundamentally, though, we've got to start with the word "student." And my responsibility is to make certain that these students who came here to play sports get quality degrees and have real futures. But at the same time, if we're going to have national sports, national competitions, the playing field has to be even across the country.