Commentary: Should college athletes be paid to play?

Dr. James B. Ewers Jr.

Commentary: Should college athletes be paid to play?
January 09
08:40 2020

By Dr. James B. Ewers Jr.

The college football season was exciting. It had a lot of highlights and unbelievable moments. One-handed catches and defensive stops were served up to us throughout the season. The beauty of college athletics is that today’s athletes are doing some almost impossible things.

Most of us have favorite teams. Whether they are HBCU institutions like North Carolina A&T, Florida A&M, South Carolina State or Johnson C. Smith, we cheer for them non-stop. We are coming to the end of the football season and the Division I National Championship will pit the Clemson Tigers against the LSU Tigers. Some critics are already saying this will be a classic matchup. All I can say is, get your chicken wings and chips ready.

Throughout the season, at least at the Division I level, if a team wins six games, they become bowl eligible. That’s one more game to play and to showcase their program. Fans travel and watch their teams bring home the trophy. Some of the bowl games have some interesting names and sponsors. Take for example, The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl or the Cheez-it Bowl. Wait a minute … don’t forget the Bahamas Bowl.

All these bowls have big money behind them. Corporations put their name in front of the bowl for prestige and to sell their product. The Allstate Sugar Bowl will get you to think about both football and insurance. When the last pass is completed and the last tackle made, sponsors will have made a lot of money.

The coaches will probably get a bonus for getting to a bowl game. Their boosters will give more to the programs and the schools will be able to recruit more students. These bowl games are highly incentivized, so everyone is motivated to do their best. Some fans plan their vacations around bowl games. You can go to the Pinstripe Bowl in New York and also take in some Broadway shows.

However, there is in the minds of many a downside to these touchdowns and first downs. Athletes at the Division I level don’t receive any of the benefits from their play. They do receive athletic scholarships which allow many of them to go to school free of charge. When you see a football stadium or an arena packed, you realize that college athletics is a billion-dollar industry.

It is the NCAA’s cash cow. If you combine attendance, booster contributions and television, that is serious cash. Some years ago, then football coach of South Carolina, Steve Spurrier, suggested that college athletes be paid. That assertion raised some interesting questions. First, what about college athletes playing other sports like swimming, tennis and track and field? How about Division II and III athletes? Would NAIA athletes be included?

There weren’t answers to these questions, so Spurrier’s comments went to 4th down and they faded away. The NCAA has been unyielding when it comes to paying students to play. 

However just a few months ago, the state of California passed legislation saying they would begin paying student athletes in 2023. The Fair Pay to Play Act was signed into law in October. It will give athletes the opportunity to profit off their name, image and likeness. They will be allowed to accept endorsement money and to hire agents.

The NCAA has yet to give a formal response to the California law. It is reported they will make about $891 million alone from its basketball tournaments. Television has provided them with a huge platform. March Madness will be here soon!

So, football and basketball continue to be the revenue streams for the NCAA. Whether they want to share the wealth remains to be seen. The question dribbling down the floor is whether the state of California will force the NCAA to act. Something will have to give.

James B. Ewers Jr., Ed.D., is a former tennis champion at Atkins High School and played college tennis at Johnson C. Smith University where he was all-conference for four years. He is a retired college administrator and can be reached at

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