Apple's Seedlings

The phrase "pay to play" is used idiomatically to reference a form of bribery. 
The term "pay for play" has recently come into use to mean that athletes should
be paid for their performance-especially if admittance fees or other compensation
to someone else is involved.  Yet there are situations in which athletes have other
duties which require them to have "amateur" status-that is not receiving
compensation for their athletic performance. 

This issue is most sharply in focus in collegiate athletics.  Those arguing
for "pay for play" point to the substantial (some say "obscene") income
received by some colleges and universities from athletic contests.  It is
patently unfair, they claim, that the athletes do not received a share of
this compensation.  Those who feel that "pay for play" is not right point
to the "amateur" heritage of collegiate sports, to the reported infractions
which have occurred, and to the fact that most student athletes are
already compensated with "free-ride" assistance which includes tuition,
room and board, and supplies (including textbooks). 

The intensity of the dispute between these viewpoints has grown in
recent years.  On the "pay for play" side, there is the O'Bannon lawsuit
claiming a legal basis for compensation, collegiate players testing whether
they can form a union, and a general feeling among the public that
student-athletes should be awarded stipends ("spending money"?)
in addition to their other benefits.  On the other side, it is pointed out
that the group of student-athletes is already by far the most financially
assisted student group on campus. 

Additional fuel has been added to the flames by recent nationally
reported incidents in which accepted standards of conduct were
violated by the institutions that were part of the group to advocate the
standards.  See my blog "Tarnished Idols" immediately following this post
which tracks how Jim Tressel at Ohio State University and Joe Paterno
at Pennsylvania State University got caught in the twin pressures of
"loyalty" and "honor."  They are not unique, of course.  A situation at the
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill is developing.  And a quick look
at recent history of the NCAA reveals several other occasions of
institutions with fingers in the cookie jar. 

Proponents of "pay for play" tend to say that these incidents result from
trying to enforce an arbitrary and unworkable standard.  Their argument
is similar to the pro-marijuana argument:  decriminalize it.  Those who
oppose "pay for play" maintain that the problem goes much deeper, and that
re-expressing the standards does not address the underlying problem, but only
buries it more deeply.

The original intent of the regulations regarding student-athletes was to
keep the focus on academics (since even then it was recognized that
athletics might easily swamp academics).  Times have changed but underlying
principles are unchanged.  Let us keep the "academic" in "academic institution." 

Author's Note
I am a faculty member of a university which does not have a football team
but which competes in Division I sports-including basketball.  Over the
years I have had a number of student-athletes in my classes.  I have had
good relations with my Athletic Department and feel they are doing what
needs to be done to comply with the rules. 

My personal attitude on the issue of "pay for play" is that athletic performance
on campus should not be a source of compensation.  If laws or rules determine
otherwise, then higher education should drop intercollegiate sports.  Perhaps
this would lead to a more complete minor league system to the benefit of the
players in all sports (as now exists in baseball and hockey).

January 29, 2014  05:55 PM ET

Ieresting take on this situation from a unique perspective, Appleseed. Personally, now that I have actually started attending UO and not merely cooking for the campus, I think that the resources earmarked for athletics are exorbitant. At the same time, I do think that the time and energy required to keep up with training is in essence a full-time job. I would personally rather see each student-athlete getting a stipend for their efforts (as I have when I've covered these athletes for campus newspapers in the past) than the Division I arms race to build the most lavish facilities and pay the biggest salaries to coaching staffs. But as someone who hopes to teach at the university level I can also understand the reluctance to open Pandora's Box. Thanks for a great read, really thought provoking!

January 29, 2014  06:23 PM ET

Thanks, Bigalke. I value your criticism and respect your opinions. I held off on stating my personal opinion on an issue dear to me until the end because I recognize that there are persuasive arguments on both sides. This is a messy issue and I fear that whatever we do will be wrong!

February 2, 2014  02:54 PM ET

First off, thanks for providing a thoughtful, balanced perspective on this thorny subject. If I could interject one additional "point" into the dialogue, it would be in reference to the "unspoken covenant" that exists between the universities and the professional sports leagues they act as a "minor league" to support. It's the primary reason I don't see the current attempts to "unionize" college athletes gaining any traction. As long as the NBA and NFL (the two sports who benefit most from the current arrangement) and their respective player unions negotiate "in good faith" to limit who can play their game, then it will continue to be left to the colleges to "figure out" how to wear a sweater while climbing through a barbed-wire fence.

February 2, 2014  07:43 PM ET

Thanks, Otis. You are a voice on FanNation for rationality (if not for sanity). You are quite right about the "tacit" relationship between collegiate and professional athletics, particularly in basketball and football of the major sports. One way I see out of this mess is to establish "real" minor leagues in these two sports (as there are now in baseball and hockey). Then the athletes who are interested in "professional development" could participate in them while the athletes who are interested in obtaining higher education would have that option.

I am under no illusion that this situation could be achieved easily. Professional athletes would resist the effort (organizational, structural, and financial) that it would take to bring it about. Collegiate athletics would resist the loss of a major cash cow. But the long-term benefits to all parties--including the athletes themselves--could trump the short-term problems.

February 27, 2014  12:21 PM ET

Funny, as I was reading your post one of the first things that came to mind was the corollary with the legalization of pot and then I got to your next to last paragraph.... Not that I'm in favor of paying college athletes but as you alluded to, it's sort of the old "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" argument. What I think the proponents of "pay to play" are saying is that it's time to remove the veneer that college athletics are still an amateur enterprise and that all players are students first. The reality is that in these times, big time collegiate athletic departments are truly professional enterprises that have many "student athletes" who are on campus solely to play and bring in wins and the millions that go with them. You mentioned the crisis at UNC, rightly regarded as one of the best state universities in the country. Yet they're "graduating" athletes who can't write their own names - and I'm sure you've all seen the CNN report that documents how widespread this problem is..... So the argument goes that if that's the accepted status quo, then it's time to acknowledge it and pay these players for their services. Not saying that all collegiate athleles fall into this category but to be fair, colleges must pay their athletes across the board and those that want to obtain a college education can do so by using their pay to cover the cost. I'm really not favor of such an agreement and I think the fact that colleges are using young men as mercenaries is a disgrace, but that's the heart of the matter. And even an "above board" salary system will not stop the practice of athletes getting paid under the table by boosters, alumni, sleazy agents, etc. It's been going on since time immemorial and will continue to go on as long as there's money to be made. I'm digressing but one of my favorite sports books is David Maraniss's "When Pride Still Mattered", a bio of Vince Lombardi. In the foreword he writes that the title is meant ironically, as many sports fans buy into the myth that athletes of prior generations played with a higher moral purpose. Moving forward from the 20's and 30's, when college football was king, he documents academic cheating scandals, players getting money "under the table" by playing semi-pro ball and other such flaunting of the rules and makes a point of stressing the adage, "Values change, human nature stays the same". What's really changed over the decades is the relative value our society has awarded sports, and what we're seeing at the college level is a direct reflection of that.
Just an aside, but the second paragraph of your author's note made me think of the Univ. of Chicago, a football powerhouse of decades past that is the only school I can think of that did away with its sports program.............Very provocative blog, John, nicely done.

February 27, 2014  02:39 PM ET

Thanks for your comments, Seabird. They are deeply appreciated. Despite the way that some view the "realities" of the situation, I do not feel that college athletics should be "professionalized" any more than participation in a debate team or driverless vehicle competition is.

I do feel there should be opportunities for those who wish to enter the professional hierarchy of athletes. They would not have to be compelled to do things they see as interfering with their goals (such as attending classes) and could compete with others for available resources while trying to get to the Bigs.

It would mean the lost of major investments for colleges and universities, their alumni and supporters, and their boards of directors and state legislatures. But think of what the result would be: Players doing what they want to do and colleges and universities being faithful to their goals as they see them.

I see the human rights struggle mirrored in this issue. It took a major culturequake to get to where we are today, and we are by no means where we ideally want to be. The issue of collegiate athletics may not have the cosmic impact as the human rights issue, but achieving our ideals here would likely mean the same kind of culturequake.

Many people on both sides of the human rights issue suffered deeply, but I feel most of us today would say we have a better society now. And we are on a track to build an even better one tomorrow.

It is not coincidence that many of those particularly positively affected by the human rights movement are now caught in the "amateur athletics" issue. I would hope - despite the problems that creating alternative professional development for many who today are forced into a "pretend" and "artificial" athletic environment - our judgment will lead us to believe that that would be the best course to follow.

April 13, 2014  01:33 PM ET

"Horse Feathers" (1932) ends with a game of football. Professor Wagstaff (Groucho Marx) wants to know: "Have we got a college? Have we got a football team? Well, we can't afford both. Tomorrow we start tearing down the college!"

Except that it is my fervent hope that when (not if) academics and athletics are clearly demonstrated to be ethically and morally incompatible (because they tend to compete for the same resources and same customers), that it will be football that will be given its own domain.


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