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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Most scholarships are revokable, so if an athlete doesn't perform well on the field, he can, in a sense, be fired from college. But academic work for some athletes is secondary: top men's basketball and football players spend 40 hours per week on their sports, easily. During football season, former Georgia tailback Richard Samuel, who earned an undergraduate degree in sports management in 2011, said he was an "athlete-student," not a "student-athlete," as the NCAA wants people to believe. "In the fall, we would spend way more time on sports than academics," says Samuel.

Players are essentially working full-time football jobs while going to school; they deserve to be paid more than a scholarship. Because even full-ride athletic scholarships don't cover the full cost of attending school, athletes are often short a few thousand bucks for ancillary expenses on top of tuition, room and board, books and fees: money for gas, shampoo and, yes, maybe a few beers. Some athletes are on only partial scholarship or are walk-ons still paying full tuition.

While many players scrimp, their head coaches don't. Average salaries for major college football coaches have jumped more than 70% since 2006, to $1.64 million, according to USA Today. For major-conference men's hoops coaches who made the 2012 March Madness tournament, pay is up 20%, to $2.25 million, over that of coaches who made the 2010 tournament, according to the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics. "It's nuts," says Michael Martin, chancellor of the Colorado State University system, who was chancellor at Louisiana State University from 2008 to 2012. LSU hired Les Miles to coach its football team in 2005; Miles now earns $4.3 million annually. "It's time for people to step up and say, We think this is the max that a football coach ought to get, and we ought to stick to it," says Martin.

It is harder to calculate the exact value of the p.r. dividend that big-time college athletes deliver to their alma maters. College presidents and conference commissioners are fond of calling sports the "front porch" of their campuses. Schools would have to spend millions of dollars to buy the advertising and media mentions that a team making regular appearances on ESPN or the networks provides. There are countless examples of schools' seeing big jumps in applications after a high-profile championship season--or even a near miss. For example, in the two years after Butler University's basketball team made its first Final Four run in 2010--the Bulldogs made a repeat appearance the following year--undergraduate applications rose 43%. And don't imagine for a moment that universities harvest their athletes' celebrity for only four years. After a truly memorable championship season, veterans are brought back to campus on a regular basis for reunions and tributes, sometimes for decades. The work never ends.

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