Editorial: Ordinary students will pay the price for paying student-athletes

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Outrage is America’s hobby, and proof of that is the dangerous debate over paying college athletes.

The latest on that front is that the top attorney for the National Labor Relations Board has determined that student-athletes should be classified as employees of universities. The board hasn’t yet made a ruling to that effect, and the board only oversees private universities, but it is a significant development nonetheless.

Significant, misguided and hard to understand, except for the fact that certain people in today’s world have to be outraged about something at all times. Being outraged by the fact that some colleges — like the University of Kansas — “make” $100 million a year on college athletics and the student-athletes don’t get paid a salary is the topic du jour of the outrage machine.

To the machine, that equates to universities making $100 million a year on the “backs of unpaid student labor.” Ok, so where is the outrage over universities making more than $300 million a year not just on the backs of student labor but actually from students themselves?

That $300 million is how much students pay in tuition to KU. Why is there so much attention to the $100 million and so little to the $300 million? Why is it that people are angry over the plight of student athletes — some of whom are getting their entire education and their entire room and board paid for through scholarships, plus getting paid a living stipend — and so little anger over ordinary students who often are having to mortgage their futures with unfavorable student loans?

Do you think there are some ordinary students out there with $100,000 in student debt and no degree yet that might willingly trade places with a full-ride student athlete?

Perhaps you say you can afford to be outraged about both, because, after all, nothing is cheaper than outrage in America. So, you may ask, what is so dangerous about wanting student-athletes to be paid like employees? Well, it is dangerous because such a system is likely just going to end up hurting the ordinary students more.

The truth is, lots of athletic departments don’t “make” $100 million. They end up getting $100 million in revenue, but a certain percentage of it doesn’t come from people buying tickets or media companies paying to put games on TV. Instead it comes from the overall university’s general fund. You know, that fund that ordinary students provide $300 million to. In the case of KU it is “only” about $1.5 million that athletics pulls from the broader university. But at places like the University of Connecticut, the number is closer to $40 million.

What will those numbers be if athletic departments take on a new expense related to paying student-athletes? How much more money are we comfortable with athletics sucking out of the general fund that should be helping ordinary students?

It is hard to feel sorry for athletic departments about all of this, though. They don’t spend much time thinking about ordinary students either. They are intent on spending every dollar they get, which leads to departments spending $100 million to provide extracurricular activities — that’s what sports are called in high schools — to about 550 students. That’s roughly the numbers for KU, by the way.

How much different would higher education be if instead of athletic departments being intent on spending every penny they get that they would ship some of that $100 million back to the university’s general fund where it could help some ordinary students? Of course, coaches and administrators may have to take a pay cut. Coaches might have to get paid something closer to professor salaries. Or, brace yourself, maybe a bit less than that. After all, coaches help bring in $100 million a year to a university, but professors help bring in $300 million.

If you want to see outrage, just try instituting that pay cut. Of course, that won’t happen. Maybe paying student-athletes like employees will happen. Maybe it won’t. It is too early to say. What can be said is a lot of people will spend a lot of time being outraged over the wrong things in higher education.

But don’t worry, it won’t be a complete waste of time, at least not for one group. They are happy for you to take all the time you want. Who? The folks who collect interest on student loans, of course.


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