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Pay for Play

Harvard men’s basketball team started off this year by heading down to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to play a game against the University of North Carolina. That same UNC team would go on to rank in the top ten for most of the season so far, and played top-ranked Duke University last month. The rivalry between these two schools, whose campuses are only a few miles from each other, is historic and dates back almost 100 years. It’s such an important rivalry that even former President Barack Obama was in attendance at the game.

Even though coaches for these teams are paid handsomely, those on the field and on the court are not. Rules governing college sports dictate that none of the student-athletes can receive any compensation, but given the amount of time that students dedicate to their passions, this has to change. If schools are going to require that their athletes put in the equivalent of a full time job in the practice room and in games, we must compensate our athletes accordingly.

Given the popularity of the Duke-UNC game, Obama-level connections might be needed in order to watch in person. Hours before tip-off, the lowest resale prices of tickets shot up into the thousands of dollars. If someone wanted to buy the tickets at face value, though, they’d be out of luck since those sold out swiftly after being posted online.

Traditionally, it’s love for the game and a tradition of good performance by both UNC and Duke basketball that drives demand for seats. But this year, one of the players is driving much of the interest: Zion L. Williamson.

Williamson, a “freshman phenom” at Duke, is leading stat sheets and driving up ticket sales. Despite this, he will receive no financial compensation for the time that he remains a college athlete because of rules governing collegiate competition.

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Other teams are also raking in profits with regular sellouts, merchandise licensing agreements, and conference television deals that go well into the hundreds of millions of dollars. That money is used by schools to compete and stay relevant. Across the country, there’s an active arms race of coaching contracts that’s pushing coaches’ salaries up into nearly the tens of millions of dollars. These college coaching contracts now rival the contracts extended to coaches for professional teams. In fact, Duke’s coach, Michael W. Krzyzewski, is getting almost $9 million this year alone for his services.

With coaching contracts in the six and seven digits, the college sports world is looking less like an amateur or friendly arena for college students to also engage in athletics and more like a training ground for professional teams, especially in the big-ticket sports of football and men’s basketball.

Yet despite the professionally-comparable sums paid to coaches, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body for collegiate sports, does not view its student athletes as professional athletes and therefore restricts them from receiving any monetary compensation whatsoever. The NCAA argues that athletes cannot be paid because “maintaining amateurism is crucial to preserving an academic environment in which acquiring a quality education is the first priority.”

The NCAA, of which Harvard is a member, essentially expects players to physically exert themselves at a full time job and carry on their obligations as a full time student simultaneously. And since these student-athletes are often putting in 40-hour weeks between lifts, practices, and games, little time is left for problem sets, papers, office hours, and other academic tasks at the College. In order to make up for this, some colleges help their athletes skate by on little work.

A few years ago at UNC, news of “one of the worst academic fraud schemes in college sports history” detailed that the school offered a “shadow curriculum” with fake classes and easy grades to make sure student-athletes were receiving the grades necessary to remain academically eligible to compete for their schools.

After the scandal came to light, the school received no punishment and lost no funds or scholarships; the real losers were the student-athletes who were promised and denied an education so that they could continue their professional level of athletics on the field. This point becomes doubly apparent upon considering that athletes are often putting their bodies — and therefore their livelihood — on the line, every game. Early in the game, that same star player that attracted so much attention before the game, Williamson, went down with an injury and did not return for the rest of the game.

The NCAA’s stated goal is to “emphasize academic opportunities and responsibilities of student-athletes in their college experience” and to “encourage student-athletes to enrich the experience of being a student-athlete by applying what is learned in athletics to their course of study and ultimately, to their career development,” but in these respects the governing body is badly failing their athletes and schools are failing their students.

Our own school is a member of the NCAA, and as such, Harvard needs to take an active role in advocating for the governing body to establish real limits and definitions to what it means to be a student-athlete. More importantly, we need to make sure that the NCAA is enforcing these limits, ensuring that each member school is prioritizing academics. While I am confident that student-athletes at Harvard are not having their educations adversely affected by their athletic participation, this must also be the case around the country.

If we don’t change this system then the NCAA is nothing but a pipeline to professional sports. And if that’s the case, then we should compensate our athletes accordingly and ensure that student-athletes are respected, not exploited, by the colleges they compete for.

Patrick C. Barham ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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