One the most talked about discussions in college athletics is whether or not college athletes should be paid?  I understand that the debate is broad one because there are too many factors surrounding the subject such as, if college athletes are paid, should there be a cap on the amount? Another question that comes to mind is the relationship between college and professional sports. For example, the National Basketball Association (NBA) implemented a rule in the 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement stating1:

The player (A) is or will be at least 19 years of age during the calendar year in which the Draft is held, and (B) with respect to a player who is not an international player (defined below), at least one (1) NBA Season has elapsed since the player’s graduation from high school (or, if the player did not graduate from high school, since the graduation of the class with which the player would have graduated had he graduated from high school)…

This rule basically states that a player is not eligible for the NBA Draft straight out of high school. It obviously affects the decision of many high school athletes of whether or not to go to college. Therefore, I will trim down the scope of the case and limit it to the yes-or-no binary question: Should college athletes be paid?

By limiting the scope of the case, many factors that would have been used to reach a conclusion are eliminated. This case will be decided using an ethical approach; specifically, Robert Nozick’s Entitlement Theory2. The definition is made of up three principles of justice in holdings:

  1. A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in acquisition is entitled to that holding.
  2. A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in transfer, from someone else entitled to the holding, is entitled to the holding.
  3. No one is entitled to a holding except by (repeated) applications of 1 and 2.

The Entitlement theory explores the concept of “distributive justice” or how resources can be distributed in the fairest way. The United States is a free society with no “central distribution” in which “no person or group [is] entitled to control the resources, jointly deciding how they are to be doled out.” According to the principles, acquisitions and transfers are made out of voluntary exchanges. Nozick compares the concept to the “distribution of mates in a society in which persons choose whom they shall marry2. In the end, there maybe an unequal distribution of goods in society but that is fair as long as each transaction falls under one of the first two principles and does not violate them.

The discussion of paying college athletes is very active in the media. There are countless articles, blogs, videos, and resources on the topic. All of the attention can be attributed to one thing: money. Every year, the college athletics industry generates billions of dollars. For example, in 2011 the University of Alabama generated the largest total revenue in college athletics with $123,769,841. The sources of revenue came from ticket sales, away games, donations, university subsidies, media rights, and branding as shown on Table 15. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), a non-profit organization that governs college athletics, has a similarly astonishing statistic for the 2010-2011 year with total revenues of $845.9 million6. Figure 1 shows the breakdown of NCAA revenues. With an industry that generates as much money as college athletics, it is no surprise the amount of media attention it gets.

The first question that needs to be asked: Why can’t colleges pay their athletes?  Following Nozick’s Entitlement theory, colleges should be able to pay their athletes. Athletic programs generate the majority of money from ticket sales and donations from alumni and boosters. Fans pay for tickets to watch the games. Boosters and alumni donate money to the school. Both forms of transfer are legal under the first two principles in the entitlement theory. So what is preventing colleges from paying their athletes? The National Collegiate Athletics Association. As previously state, NCAA is the institution that governs college athletics encompassing over 1,300 universities3. Their core values7:

The Association – through its member institutions, conferences and national office staff – shares a belief in and commitment to:

  • The collegiate model of athletics in which students participate as an avocation, balancing their academic, social and athletics experiences.
  • The highest levels of integrity and sportsmanship.
  • The pursuit of excellence in both academics and athletics.
  • The supporting role that intercollegiate athletics plays in the higher education mission and in enhancing the sense of community and strengthening the identity of member institutions.
  • An inclusive culture that fosters equitable participation for student-athletes and career opportunities for coaches and administrators from diverse backgrounds.
  • Respect for institutional autonomy and philosophical differences.
  • Presidential leadership of intercollegiate athletics at the campus, conference and national levels.

The NCAA is responsible for investigating and enforcing the rules through various committees such as the Committee of Infractions. The rules directly involving paying college athletes are stated by the NCAA Eligibility Center under Amateurism 3. They prevent:

  1. Contracts with a professional team.
  2.  Salary for participating in athletics.
  3. Prize money.
  4. Play with professionals.
  5. Try outs, practice or competition with a professional team.
  6. Benefits from an agent or prospective agent.
  7. Agreement to be represented by an agent.
  8. Delayed initial full-time collegiate enrollment to participate in organized sports competition.
  9. Any financial assistance based on athletics skills or participation.

Universities found guilty of violating the NCAA legislation on recruiting receive punishments. These punishments can include fines, suspensions, loss of scholarships, and other limits on recruiting. Usually, the punishments respond directly to the infractions. In the worst case, the NCAA can impose the death penalty, which bans a team from participating in a sport for a certain amount of years8.

However, often times these investigations are conducted after the season is over or a player has already left the university. Such was the case at the University of Memphis. An investigation found that a player of the University of Memphis basketball team on the 2007 – 2008 season had falsified SAT scores. Allegedly, another person had taken the SAT for him. Although he was never named, that player is believed to be reigning NBA most-valuable player, Derrick Rose. It was also found that $2,000 in travel expenses was provided by the University of Memphis to Reggie, Derrick Rose’s brother. Punishment for the infraction included forfeiting the 2007-2008 season, which included winning in the Final Four to lose in the championship game9.

Although the University of Memphis was punished and the season was forfeited, that does not erase from people’s memories the Memphis team that made it to the championship game in 2008. What is even more disturbing is that John Calipari, the Memphis head coach during the 2007-2008 season, earned a $160,000 bonus for winning 81 percent of games and a $200,000 bonus for making the Final Four9. This instills a win-at-all-costs attitude that almost encourages coaches to bend the rules. The punishments that the NCAA enforces attempt to eliminate any competitive advantage as a result of the violation but it is difficult to remove the exposure Memphis received as a result of the NCAA March madness tournament.

And this is only an example of a university that was caught violating the rules. What about the teams that are not caught? The NCAA recruiting rules that attempts to remove any competitive advantage actually do the opposite. Following the recruiting rules actually puts a university at a disadvantage compared to universities that bend or break the rules.

The solution is to allow all college athletic programs to pay their athletes. By doing so actually levels the playing field and removes that competitive advantage that some programs have by skirting the rules. As the debate surges on, there has already been slight progress for college athletes. Members of the NCAA recently voted to change the legislation to allow universities to offer up to $2,000 “cost-of-living” spending money to its recruits10. Although a small amount, this is a first step in reforming the rules to allow college athletes to be paid. There is no question of ethics involved because as the Entitlement theory states, a voluntary transaction – from the colleges to athletes – is ethical.

Tables and Figures

For some reason, the table isn’t reformatting. Here is the link.

Table 1: Revenues of top college athletic programs
































Ohio State





























Note: The money categories are just highlights from athletic departments’ financials, so they won’t add up to the totals at the end [5].


Figure 1: NCAA revenue breakdown for the 2010-2011 year [6].

[1] “Article X, Section 1”. 2005 NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement. National Basketball Players Association. Archived from the original on February 27, 2008. Retrieved April 14, 2012.

[2] Robert Nozick. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

[3] “2011-2012 Guide for College-Bound Student-Athlete.” NCAA Eligibility Center. Retrieved April 14, 2012.

[4] “Infractions.” National Collegiate Athletic Association. Retrieved April 14, 2012.

[5] “College athletics revenues in 2011.” ESPN. Retrieved April 14, 2012.

[6] “Revenue.” National Collegiate Athletic Association. Retrieved April 14, 2012.

[7] “Cores Values.” National Collegiate Athletic Association. Retrieved April 14, 2012.

[8] “Penalties.” National Collegiate Athletic Association. Retrieved April 14, 2012.

[9] Wolken, Dan. (2009, August 20). “Memphis Tigers Found Guilty by NCAA; Must Vacate 2007-08 Basketball Season, Will Appeal.” Memphis Commercial Appeal. Retrieved April 14, 2012.

[10] “NCAA Panel Approves Major changes.” (2011, October 27). ESPN. Associated Press. Retrieved April 15, 2012.


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