TIME Cover Story: It's Time to Pay College Athletes

College sports are mass entertainment. It's time to fully reward players for their work

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Photograph by Andrew Hancock — Sports Illustrated

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The historic justification for not paying players is that they are amateur student-athletes and the value of their scholarships--often worth in excess of $100,000 over four years--is payment enough. But a growing number of economists and sports experts are beginning to argue for giving athletes a fair share of the take. The numbers are too large to ignore. College athletes are mass-audience performers and need to be rewarded as such. "The rising dollar value of the exploitation of athletes," says Roger Noll, a noted sports economist from Stanford University, "is obscene, is out of control."

How We Got Here

The athlete is the most available publicity material the college has. A great scientific discovery will make good press material for a few days, but nothing to compare to that of the performance of a first-class athlete.

No statement better explains why American colleges are so invested in modern-day sports--and why college athletes have a right to a paycheck. It was written in 1929, part of a Carnegie Foundation study on American college athletics. A college, said the authors, "wants students, it wants popularity, and above all it wants money and always more money."

The Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862 and post--Civil War industrialization sparked the U.S.'s unique obsession with college sports. "As large public institutions spread into sparsely populated states, the competition for students grew fierce," says Allen Sack, a business professor at the University of New Haven who has written extensively on college-sports history. A new sport, a bastardized version of soccer and rugby that was uniquely American--football--happened to be catching on at this time, and it emerged as a tool to draw students, and spectators, to campuses.

The game professionalized rapidly. The University of Chicago hired former Yale football star Amos Alonzo Stagg as coach in 1892: the university president told Stagg to "develop teams we can send around the country and knock out all the colleges." The 1894 Harvard-Yale football game, for example, generated $119,000, according to the New York Times. That's nearly $3 million in today's dollars. By 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt felt compelled to step in to "save" college football from its then violent format. Chicago dropped football in 1939.

Few schools followed. Today college football is a booming profit center for many institutions at the top of Division 1, the highest level of NCAA sports, and is a growing portion of the regional economy in college towns like Boise, Idaho; State College, Pa.; College Station; and South Bend, Ind. According to the most recent federal data, the University of Texas football team netted a profit of $77.9 million in 2011--12, on $103.8 million in revenue. Michigan made $61.6 million from football, on $85.2 million in revenue. Any business would kill for those profit margins.

In fairness, many college athletes are compensated--with an athletic scholarship. This attractive carrot drives today's intense competition in youth and high school sports. With tuition costs escalating, these scholarships are a serious meal ticket and for many families are the only way their children can afford to go to a four-year school.

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