Should College Football Players Be Paid?

After watching ESPN Gameday’s panel discussion recently on whether college football players should be paid, I thought I’d write a little off-topic this time.

Those who favor paying college football players argue that the current system exploits college players because they are unable to profit from their efforts or their likeness even though they generate incredible sums for their colleges and universities. Those who disagree usually respond that the college players are paid plenty with a free college education and that student athletes should be students first. To those who look at the bottom line, the incredible dollars the top athletes help create for their colleges and the NCAA significantly dwarfs the cost of a free college education (even with today’s expensive college tuition!). Unfortunately, the bottom line difference only feeds the exploitation feeling, making it much easier for college players to justify accepting money against the “unfair” rules. Both sides miss the larger point—the best college football players are not exploited at all. In fact, playing college football helps the best players earn significantly more as a professional player.

2011 first overall NFL Draft pick Cam Newton received a $14.5M signing bonus for his first contract. Had he been allowed to go straight from high school into the 2007 NFL draft, where would he have been drafted and what would his signing bonus have been? Answer—he wouldn’t have been drafted and he would not have had a signing bonus. 2012 first overall NFL Draft pick Andrew Luck also received a $14.5M signing bonus when he signed with Indianapolis. Where would he have been drafted had he been able to go straight to the NFL draft after high school? Answer—the same. Not drafted, no signing bonus. Same thing for 2013 first overall NFL draft pick Eric Fisher, or nearly every NFL first round draft pick outside of maybe Bo Jackson or Herschel Walker. Why? Because the pro game is so much more advanced than high school football that NFL teams will not be willing to risk a top round selection on the hope that a player like QB Jimmy Clausen will be a top NFL quarterback merely because he was a top rated high school player.

Cam Newton and Andrew Luck earned a lot of money for the NCAA. Sales of their jerseys brought in big-time dollars for Auburn and Stanford. But make no mistake about it. College football gave Newton, Luck, and all the top players something very valuable in return. College football gave them the training, exposure, and opportunity to allow them to significantly increase the dollars they earned upon starting their professional career. Fourteen million is a very nice payoff for Newton and Luck, and that only covers their signing bonuses.

College football teaches players much of what they need to become professional football players. College football training helps players understand an advanced playbook and to learn the techniques needed to become impact position players. College football offers strength and conditioning programs that allow players to transform their bodies into dominant football players. College football teaches players how to practice and prepare the right way. It offers the opportunity to play against other great players to show the NFL how they would fare against top competition. And because college football has such a fan following, it gives the best players television exposure. Nearly all football fans know of Johnny Manziel. How many of these fans can even name an Arena Football league player?

Some players realize the real value they receive from playing college football. Ndamukong Suh, former Nebraska defensive lineman, and number 2 overall pick by the Detroit Lions in the 2010 NFL draft, recently acknowledged the value he received from his Nebraska college football career when he said in support of beleaguered Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini:

This man and his defensive staff showed me how to work/study football to reach my potential in college and become a Lombardi award, Outland trophy, Nagurski trophy, Chuck Bednarik award, Bill Willis trophy, All-American and 2009 AP Player of the Year!

Suh used his college football training to help him sign a $68M contract with $40M guaranteed! Not bad.

I do not mean to imply the current system is not flawed. There are problems with the NCAA’s archaic and complex rules, and the NCAA has difficulty preventing even the most egregious violations. Maybe the stipend college athletes receive should be higher so that college athletes can afford to be a student in college. David Pollack’s Gameday idea to allow schools to pay to bring the parents of players to see their son’s play sounds very reasonable as well. But the lack of pay for college football players is not the problem, nor is it unfair to the player.

Take any NFL drafted player. The training, exposure, and opportunity these players received in college allowed them to earn significantly more money in their career. Ironically, isn’t that a key purpose of college—to help students maximize their earning potential after they graduate?