NCAA Championship

The Case for Compensating College Basketball Players

[Opinion] As March Madness draws to a close with the NCAA Championship, is it time to consider paying college athletes what they're worth?

by David Canton, April 3, 2017

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NCAA Championship

South Carolina players warm up during a practice session for their NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game Friday. AP / Morry Gash

As March Madness draws to an end with the championship game tonight, 70 million Americans across the nation who filled out NCAA college basketball tournament brackets and participated in office and online pools are consoling themselves on losses or counting their winnings.

But the players themselves are not counting money they should have earned. This is the real March madness.

The three-week tournament that is March Madness generates close to $1 billion for the NCAA. CBS and TNT paid $10 billion for television rights of the NCAA Division I Men’s basketball tournament.  During March Madness, vendors, coaches and security guards get paid; everyone connected to the tournament it seems except the student athletes who get a free education.

Division I Men’s basketball players need to be compensated because they are the players who generate the revenue and serve as the best recruiting tool for major universities.

African American basketball players carry the disproportionate burden of this exploitative system. Black men are 2.8 percent of the total student college population but are 64 percent of Division I basketball players, according to a Penn State University study.

Only 1.2 percent of these athletes will play professional ball. For the majority of these athletes, after college their basketball careers are over. Unfortunately, for the students who do not graduate, all they have are memories. They can be the best players at their positions in college, but they cannot coach on a high school or college level because they do not have a degree.


Related: Are NCAA Rules on Its Athletes Creating an Uneven Playing Field?


Division I basketball players are a major reason for the Power 5 conferences (PAC 12, ACC, SEC, BIG 12 and BIG 10) for creating their own television networks. In 2007, the Big Ten Network debuted; a decade later BTN expects to give $47 million to each school regardless of their performance. Jim Delaney, the BTN president, made $3.1 million 2016.

Most college sports programs do not make a profit, but college men’s basketball does.  Those who do not support paying athletes insist they are students and not employees. While this is nothing more than semantics, universities have used it to justify not providing health benefits for serious injuries or paying its athletes.

Northwestern University football players fought to unionize in 2014 and Northwestern stated the football players are student/athletes and are not employees.  The football players did not get the right to unionize but their case forced some PAC 12 schools to consider lifetime education trusts.

The majority of the revenue generated from March Madness goes to the NCAA, the coaches and employee salaries. One step for fairness would be in reducing the salaries of the Power 5 coaches. Athletic coaches should not be paid higher than a college president or senior level administrators. If they want to make millions of dollars, then they can go to the NBA. I can get an exceptional high school coach who will coach for a quarter of the money that these coaches make.

Duke University Coach Mike Krzyzewski is the highest paid college basketball coach earning  $7.2 million a year. In 12 states, Division I men’s basketball coaches are the highest paid public employees.

The average salary for a Division I Men’s basketball coach is $1 million. In addition, coaches receive bonuses for winning championships, providing summer camps, and hosting radio shows.  

In addition to compensating these players, the NCAA can send funding to low income high schools to provide first generation student athletes with mentors, academic tutoring, and trainers so they can increase their opportunity to obtain an athletic scholarship or at the very least be more prepared for college and life.

In many cities across the country, there are thousands of exceptional first generation student athletes who do not get an athletic scholarship because they attended a low-performing school. These student athletes did not have the resources to hire personal trainers, attend an elite prep school or hire academic tutors.

Division I Men’s basketball players receive a yearly athletic scholarship with an average total worth of full tuition and room and board. The six- year graduation rate for Black basketball players is 77 percent; an all time high.

There are thousands of success stories of former basketball players who graduated and are living a successful life.  The increased graduation rate is due to the increase of second-generation student athletes.

Lonzo Ball, the first year phenom point guard at University California- Los Angeles, is a second generation student athlete. His father, Laver Ball, played college football and basketball. Golden State Warrior point guard Steph Curry is the son of Dell Curry, who played college basketball at Virginia Tech University.

Contrary to the “rescue” myth prevalent in college sports,  70 percent of Division I Men’s basketball players are second generation student athletes.  They are not all from “da hood” who can only get into college by playing basketball.  But the growing class divide in college sports reflects the class and income divide in our society.  Investing in low -income schools and compensating these athletes is one strategy the NCAA must use to rationalize the exploitative system.

March Madness may have come to a close, but the madness will likely continue for the young men who play ball in a system that routinely makes rules that work against them. It’s time to change that.


David Canton is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Africana Studies Program at Connecticut College and the author of Raymond Pace Alexander: A New Negro Lawyer Fights for Civil Rights in Philadelphia. He is a Greenhouse Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

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