For college football fans, there is no better time of year. Fall is here and the excitement of another season of college football begins. It is a uniquely American tradition.
Our critics have their own tradition this time of year: perpetuating the tired myth that college athletes are exploited. While we see thousands of young men and women who proudly represent their institutions competing for the love of the game and a chance to earn a college degree, they see a much different picture that distorts reality.
They often point to the incredibly small percentage of athletes who leave college early to play professionally as they push old stereotypes that our students are just jocks on a detour to the NBA or the NFL. The data on the number of college football and basketball players who make it to NFL or NBA rosters tell a different story. Less than two percent of Division I players get drafted. Most student-athletes know they’re playing the game they love for the last time in college.
Critics claim college athletics is broken and they propose paying students salaries on top of their scholarships. Some critics want to allow students to join unions. The result? College athletes would become employees of the institutions they represent.
And that is the fundamental flaw among many in the pay-for-play argument. College athletes are not employees. They’re students. It’s that simple. They are young men and women from all walks of life who have earned the opportunity to pursue a college education while playing sports.
The debate over paying players often misses the larger point. There is tremendous value in earning a college degree while learning the critical lessons competitive sports at the highest level teaches. According to data from the non-profit College Board, a college graduate earns $800,000 more over his or her lifetime than those with a high school degree.
College athletes graduate at a slightly higher rate than their peers who don’t play sports. In addition, a Gallup study found they are more successful in landing jobs, healthier and more connected socially than students who don’t play sports in college.
The critics who clamor for radical change underestimate the rapid pace of reform that has occurred the past three years and the impact it is having. Students at many universities now receive cost-of-living stipends to cover the full “cost of attendance,” and their scholarships may be guaranteed for four years.
Recent reforms give students more time away from their sport to study, apply for internships or recover. They now have additional days of free time away from athletics they didn’t have before. The truth is today’s college athletes enjoy more benefits and have more support to help them complete their degrees, graduate debt free, prepare for their careers and enjoy successful lives than they have ever had.
Critics who favor salaries, unions and a recruiting free-for-all that would be funded by boosters believe a salary would give students a chance to live like typical college students.
The “typical college student” does not get access to unlimited meals, academic support services, nutritionists and trainers that many athletes enjoy on top of tuition and other benefits that athletes receive. According to the Institute for College Access & Success, nearly 7 in 10 college graduates left school with an average of $30,000 in debt. Many student-athletes have none.
Paying players would undoubtedly have unintended consequences that could put the majority of college sports that don’t generate revenue in serious jeopardy. Even the critics agree that cutting sports and paying only players on a handful of teams would likely create a major problem with Title IX, a federal law that ensures equal treatment of men and women athletes.
We welcome continued debate over meaningful reforms. As our track record in recent years shows, it is possible to make a difference in the daily lives of our students with real changes.
We want our students to become successful in college and in life. That’s why they’re students and that’s why we’re here.
MacLeod is commissioner of Conference USA. Kallander is commissioner of the Big South Conference.