Why Universities Should Pay their Athletes

Recently while I was watching legal series, Bluff City Law and in one of the episodes a dying former athlete brought a suit against his former college seeking compensation for a permanent injury that he had sustained a while back when he was still playing for this college. This injury would go on to affect how he lived his life thereafter. It was this ailment that would ultimately lead to his death. This episode had me thinking for days; Should student-athletes be paid for their services or is that a scholarship grant enough to outweigh the need for remuneration?

With the sports industry growing each day, the purpose of games has graduated from merely being for entertainment and leisure to being significantly commercial. According to a report by Ernest & Young, the premier league and its clubs contributed €2.4 billion to public finance in the 2013/14 season. This is independent of €3.4 Billion that was collected from other activities relating to the participation and consumption of premier league football in the same financial year. The same story can be said of other domestic sports tournaments in other countries, and with the advent of betting, governments are making huge profits from sports directly and indirectly.

However, one might then wonder how the commercialization of sports relates to universities or other like institutions paying their student-athletes. Isn’t the grant of hard to get scholarships enough? Do Universities and these other institutions make profits from their participation in sports? Are there any other benefits or advantages that these institutions derive from their participation in these tournaments?

That said, I strongly opine that students at higher institutions should be paid stipends on top of scholarships and other benefits given to them. To understand this proposition, it’s necessary to look at the history of sports and how it has evolved. The history of sports dates back to the ancient world where sports were used for rituals, warfare, and entertainment. In the ancient world, sports were related to military training. Sports competitions were used to determine whether individuals were fit and useful for service. Team-sports were used to train and to prove the capability to fight in the military and also to work together as a team. Sports, however, have gone through many social changes and have adopted economic aspects overtime as already pointed out above.

Universities or institutions of higher learning are no exceptions to the foregoing changes. The traditional purpose of sports in schools was ideally to ensure the physical and mental fitness of students but this has greatly changed over time. Institutions of learning now derive other independent benefits from engaging in sports competitions which necessitates recruitment of the very best talents in the land and at times from abroad. Athletic programs drive enrolment and heighten the profiles of the institution. According to a report by ESPN, athletic competitions bring in big money through media rights, ticket sales, and branding and direct program donations. In the USA, the University of Alabama athletic department raked more than $124 Million in a single year due to the reputation of its Crimson Tide football program. The school saw revenue of more than $13 million from media, from branding rights, over $30 Million in donations, and $28 million ticket sales. 

This is not exclusive to the USA, in Uganda for example, there are institutions such as UCU, Nkozi, and Ndejje among others that not only take part in institutional competitions but have teams that are competing in national tournaments as clubs and are incorporated as such. Yet these institutions use students, who at the very best are just on scholarships! Athlete students grind through grueling workouts, practice, and games every day of the year, combined with rigorous academics. Student-athletes are some of the hardest working people in the country.

It is also common that universities and institutions that do not take part in other national tournaments act as academies for bigger clubs in the country and they make money off linking these students to these clubs. All these profits made off student-athletes exacerbated by the rigor and risks students are exposed to, for example obtaining life-lasting injuries, students should be recognised as employees and be compensated for their services.

According to a report by Bleacher, Universities continue to make a lot of money while most athletes are given is a scholarship. The majority of these students are indeed from poor backgrounds and therefore the only choice they have is to accept these exploitative arrangements or drop out of school. The biggest issue with this is that the expenses required to attend a college exceed the amount that athletes are awarded in their scholarships and yet students can’t ask for more.

Two arguments are contemplated against the payment of student-athletes. Firstly, that it would be inimical to the objective of the game and that school would require a bigger budget to fund sports. But this cannot stand given the above facts. The other argument is that it would be very hard to regulate the industry and would lead to injustice and unfair competition. This is also not true. The industry can be well regulated by way of policy because all that is necessary is to provide for payment. All other structures are already in place.

Therefore, it’s only fair to provide for sufficient compensation for students that make a lot of money for their institutions. Institutions should not be left to use free labour to make a lot of money merely because they provide free scholarships. These scholarships do not commensurate with the efforts put in by students and it is exploitation at the very best.

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