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Examining compensation to college athletes


The rafters above Princeton’s Jadwin Gym.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Schilling / Wikimedia Commons

On Tuesday, Oct. 29, the NCAA’s top governing board unanimously voted that it would “permit students participating in athletics the opportunity to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.” The rationale taken was that college sports must provide additional flexibility and “continue to support college sports as a part of higher education.”

The decision came after pressure from the state governments of Florida and New York pushed for legislation similar to California’s Fair Pay to Play law. The law, signed by Governor Gavin Newsom on Sept. 30, allows college athletes to make money from endorsement deals. The bill introduced in New York goes a step further, requiring all New York colleges to set aside 15 percent of their revenue from ticket sales for their athletes, with half of that money going towards health and savings should a player suffer an injury.


With the introduction of these bills, the NCAA was apparently pressured to vote this way so that no state would have an advantage in recruiting vis-à-vis players choosing colleges in states with compensation. Amid criticism for their strict policies, the NCAA was quick to highlight systems already in place, such as scholarships, which would show they were already making an effort to better accommodate student-athletes.

Last week, ‘Prince’ contributor Sam Kagan ’23 wrote an excellent article on this subject, giving a voice to student-athletes at Princeton and their opinions on the subject. Students expressed conflicting viewpoints on the issue. Those in favor suggested that independently earning money and profiting off the hard work put into the sport should not be seen as a bad thing, but rather as an incentive for athletes to invest in their sport.

On the other hand, some argued that this ruling would detract from the drive and camaraderie of college sports, as well as education in general, highlighting that “student” comes first in the formulation of “student-athlete,” meaning that academics should come first. Also, those against compensation argued it would not affect small-market sports and small-market colleges, while the few athletes who would benefit from this policy would go on to make money anyway.

While the Ivy League has different standards from other colleges, many of these same talking points have been debated for a long time nationally.  Recently, Tim Tebow responded negatively to the California bill, saying on ESPN’s “First Take” that he did not want to make any money off his name when he played quarterback at the University of Florida, despite the fact that at the time, his jersey was one of the top-selling in the country across all sports.

Like many, Tebow argued that compensation would distract from the team-centric culture of college sports. His take quickly became the quintessential argument supported by those in favor of forbidding payment to college athletes. He said, “Now we’re changing it from us, from we, from my university, from being an alumni where I care, which makes college football and college sports special, to then, okay, it’s not about us, it’s not about we, it’s just about me. And yes, I know we live in a selfish culture where it’s all about us, but we’re just adding and piling on to that where it changes what’s special about college football.”

As proof, Tebow cited that the passion fans and alumni had for college football, as opposed to the NFL, stemmed from this culture, which is why college stadiums are much larger than professional ones.


Tebow was met with significant criticism over his comments from others in the sports world. Many of these critiques centered around the fact that Tebow came from a place of privilege and would never know what difference this compensation could provide for some.

David Mulugheta, a popular agent for the sports agency Athletes First, was one of the first to respond, tweeting “Just in case anyone is curious, this is what “privilege” sounds like. I guarantee @TimTebow never missed a meal growing up because his parents didn’t have the means, nor does he understand what having to help your mother pay bills so the lights stay on feels like.

One of the other prevailing arguments against compensation has always been about education. Those who receive scholarships are often told not to complain because they are receiving a free tuition, which in itself may be considered a form of payment. The term “education,” however, should be used loosely here.

At major athletic schools, not only is the time commitment more strenuous than it would be in the Ivy League, but the quality of education is may be comparatively limited. Jourdan Lewis, a cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys who was a student-athlete at the University of Michigan, discussed this often unspoken point, saying, “Don’t talk to me about a free education, because when I got to school[,] I was told I couldn’t major in graphic design. It didn’t fit my, ‘schedule.’” Lewis, like many athletes at Michigan, was steered toward taking sociology, which was seen as a more manageable major in Ann Arbor.

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For eighteen years at the University of North Carolina, football and basketball players were recommended to take classes that never met and gave out free A’s to students in what became a famous scandal five years ago.

Though the NCAA limits time spent on collegiate sports to 20 hours a week, athletes spend far more time than that on athletics. Based on a testimony that included Northwestern University football coach Pat Fitzgerald, it was determined that for a single game a short distance away in Ann Arbor, Northwestern players spent 24 hours traveling, preparing for, and playing the game. The NCAA calculates this time as just 3 hours, no matter how long the game goes and no matter how long it takes for everything else. Fitzgerald called this commitment a “full-time job.”

Ultimately, the arguments that defend the status quo in college sports reflect only a single viewpoint. Often, they fail to consider what profiting from one’s own likeness or from ticket sales could do for athletes who may not be able to reach professional level but still face the pressure of supporting their family, maintaining a very limited education, and finding time for physical and mental health. In this sense, student-athletes face a unique and particularly challenging combination of stress and uncertainty.