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

The texas a&m aggies opened their 2013 football season on Aug. 31 without the most captivating player in the game. Three days earlier, the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) and Texas A&M had suspended Johnny Manziel, the sophomore quarterback who last season became the first freshman ever to win the Heisman Trophy, for the first half of the Aggies' home opener against Rice University. Though the NCAA and the school determined that Manziel had not personally accepted money when he signed autographs earlier this year, they nonetheless slapped Manziel on the wrist for failing to realize that trinket brokers would surely profit from his signature.

Like most college-sports critics, Manziel responded to this punishment by mocking it. He threw for three touchdown passes in the second half of A&M's 52-31 blowout victory over the Owls in front of almost 87,000 fans at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas. He mimicked signing an autograph while jawing with an opponent and pointed toward the scoreboard in the fourth quarter, earning an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty and another benching, this time from his coach.

Manziel's alleged crime and televised punishment have teed up a debate that has been simmering for decades but is now more intense than ever. Why shouldn't a player worth so much to his school, to his town and to the college-football brand be able to sign his name for money, just as any other celebrity has a right to do? How much longer can everyone else make money from college athletes like Manziel while the athletes themselves see their cash compensation capped--at $0? According to a recent study, if college football operated under the same revenue-sharing model as the NFL, each of the 85 scholarship football players on the Aggies squad could see a paycheck of about $225,000 per year. Manziel is surely worth a great deal more.

The uncomfortable question has surfaced just as college sports are booming. Thanks to plush television-rights deals, like the 12-year, $3 billion contract the Pacific-12 conference signed with ESPN and Fox in 2011, vast revenues will keep rolling into university coffers. Coaches, admissions offices and university alumni operations profit from the stars.

All kinds of people beyond campus are also making money from this lopsided system. Football-game days in particular drive college-town economies. Souvenir hawkers, bars, burger joints, hotels, ticket brokers, stadium vendors, parking attendants and others rely on home games for revenue. According to a 2012 study from Oxford Economics, a global research firm, a season's worth of Texas A&M home football games generate $86 million in business for Brazos County, where A&M is located.

But the players with the talent remain out of the money simply because a group of college presidents, athletic directors and conference commissioners set their wages at zero. "Universities are quick to lecture society," says Charles Clotfelter, an economics and public-policy professor at Duke University and the author of the probing 2011 book Big-Time Sports in American Universities. "But here is a situation where we're not living up to our best selves."

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