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Originally published Sunday, January 5, 2014 at 5:08 PM

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Guest: It’s time to start paying college athletes

Colleges should be allowed to pay athletes, writes guest columnist Richard O. Zerbe.

Special to The Times

No comments have been posted to this article.


ON Monday, Auburn University will take on Florida State University in the national Bowl Championship Series football game. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) will make money on the broadcast rights, the networks will make money from ad sales and the schools will make money on ticket sales. The players won’t be paid.

Colleges should be allowed to pay athletes. The players risk injury, devote considerable time, may forego earnings while playing and will not, in most cases, be able to play professional ball.

Fewer colleges should be restricted from furnishing tutoring for prospective players.

Players are exploited unnecessarily. Far too many football and basketball players do not graduate, depending on the school and conference. For example, in the Pac-12, University of California-Berkeley barely graduates 50 percent of its football players.

A better restriction to maintain competitive balance would be to simply let the NCAA set a budget for each division and let the sports program use the money as it will. Such a restriction would be easy to monitor and easier to enforce.

It would avoid the continual scandal and corruption that now exists — more money would be spent on players and less money would be spent on coaches.

Although this approach would reduce coaches’ salaries, it would not reduce the quality of coaching. Most coaches do not have alternative opportunities that pay as well; they would continue coaching. The NFL would not provide another outlet for most college coaches. The few NFL coaches they would displace would, in turn, seek college jobs.

The vast majority of college- and university-sponsored sport teams are based on the amateur model. The vast majority of college athletes play minor sports, not the big revenue-producing ones.

Sport budgets should be set at different levels for each division. Division II and III sports are relatively low-cost activities. According to the antitrust and sports economist Roger Noll, writing in 1999, those schools can field most teams for $50,000 to $200,000 a year. In 2013 dollars, this would cost between $70,000 and $280,000. Thus, a comprehensive college sport program can be run for about $1.4 million per year, less than the salaries for many head coaches in Division I-A, which includes the University of Washington.

Half of all top-level athletic programs rely on at least $9 million in institutional and governmental subsidies to balance their budgets. In the most prosperous conference, members received a median subsidy of $3.4 million, according to the Knight Commission.

It is a myth that football and basketball teams cover their own expenses and fully support nonrevenue sports. The NCAA found that 93 of the 119 top Division I teams ran a deficit for the 2007-08 school year, averaging a $9.9 million loss. The increase in sports spending far exceeds increases in academic spending over, say, the last 10 years.

The exploitation of players is inconsistent with the humanistic goals of colleges. Setting the athletic budget and allowing colleges to pay players is a step forward. Colleges can compel the NCAA to do this. It is, after all, a creation of colleges.

Richard O. Zerbe is Daniel J. Evans Professor of Public Affairs at the University of Washington, adjunct professor at the law school and a former college athlete.

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