Open Letter to a College Football Player Who Thinks He Should be Paid

Heisman.Howard.Illinois

Dear Sports Hero,

Congratulations on being a superstar. You’re real impressive, sprinting around in that stadium that cost millions to build, wearing shoes and gear that were given to you, fueled up on wholesome free food and all the milk you can drink. Before you head inside that state-of-the-art sports complex for your whirlpool soak and massage, can we talk about why exactly you think you deserve to be paid?

Before you get your jock strap in a bunch, I admit that you work hard to be an athlete. It’s challenging to juggle practice, conditioning, and games with all your schoolwork. You’re super busy. But look around for a moment and you’ll notice that other students are busy, too. Loads of them are running student organizations, volunteering, and working at part-time jobs.

Ah, I see. It’s not the same, you say, because those students aren’t making money for the school! The university reaps massive rewards thanks to your football prowess, right? Row after row of jerseys sporting your name and are for sale in the bookstore, for $59.99 each. Your picture appears in promotional materials. Fans pay $5 to have their photo taken with a life-size cardboard cutout of you.  Don’t you deserve a cut of the profits?

No, you don’t. Here’s the deal: YOU aren’t what’s special about this whole arrangement. Maybe 100,000 screaming fans on Saturday afternoons have left the impression that “it’s all about you.” An understandable mistake – anyone could get wrapped up in that madness. But in the relative calm of a weekday afternoon, let’s unpack this situation.

Answer two questions and you’ll know where you stand: Would the school make this kind of money without you? Would you have this kind of fame without the school?

Yes and No.

The esteemed university for which you suit up has fielded a football team for over 100 years. The team is extremely valuable to the school, for reasons that include (but are not limited to) history and tradition, the fight song, the fans, the TV contracts, the bowl games, the former Heisman Trophy winners, the alumni players active in the NFL or working as commentators, the championship trophies, and the mascot-branded garden gnomes for sale on Amazon.com.

Did you see your own name mentioned above? Me, neither.

Through the short-sighted lens of your youth (and motivated by those thousands of screaming fans), you’ve come to believe that you add value to the school. In a small way, you do (as long as you complete your 4 years of eligibility without injury, without behavior issues, and without having your skills rendered obsolete by an even more talented new recruit). The truth is you’re part of your school’s great tradition but not a key driver of revenue. Not even close.

Now to the second question: Would you have this kind of fame without the school?  The number of famous football players who didn’t play in college is exactly zero.  If you hadn’t committed to your current situation (which I feel compelled to point out was completely voluntary), would you have any fans?  Would anyone pay money to watch you kick that ball around in your back yard? Do you think some NFL team would call to offer you a job? Admit it: you need this school if you want any chance at a football career (and you need it even more if football doesn’t, ahem, work out long term).

Don’t despair – there is some good news (no, you’re not going to be paid). You get a free education out of this deal – something many of your peers would be delighted to have. You won’t always be a football star. Someday you’ll be a retiree with bad knees and a sore back who spends his days sitting in front of the TV cheering for his alma mater (which I’m guessing will still have a team that makes oodles of money despite your fine self not having graced the field for 50 years). Long after your jersey is on the discount rack and the fans have forgotten your name, you’ll have that degree.

That is something to feel special about. Congratulations, sports hero.  And good luck.

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2 thoughts on “Open Letter to a College Football Player Who Thinks He Should be Paid

  1. Scott Anderegg

    I agree with your analysis. The problem is that unlike baseball, there is no farm system for football – well except the SEC. The college system today mixes football and getting players ready for the NFL. So you have guys who could actually start for many NFL teams playing college football, and they see ESPN getting paid, the college getting paid and they want to get paid. The mix causes players getting money under the table. Most college football player will never smell an NFL football field. So what do you do with a kid who can start in the NFL and has no interest in an education? Does the analysis change if his family is actually dirt poor? I remember one star running back when I asked why he took booster money saying there was no food in his mother’s house. Getting paid gets rid of issue of player getting money under the table. Talking to my buddies who played college football it happens a lot more then you think. For most, not big money but $20 here and $50 there. There are a lot of issues.

    Reply
    1. lmctaggart2013

      I’m definitely in favor of athletic scholarships covering the “full cost of attendance,” like meals when the dining hall is closed and transportation to and from school. Players who don’t come to school with resources shouldn’t go hungry. Several big school athletic directors are in favor of this and I believe the NCAA is considering something along those lines, but so far no agreement on how to do it.

      I have thought about the pitfalls of trying to pay players (which ones, how much, under what circumstances, etc.) and might write a whole essay on it someday. Thanks for reading my blog!

      Reply

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