The Game of Economics for College Athletes

Last week's BCS National Championship Game between the Auburn Tigers and the Oregon Ducks made some people very rich. Coaches, athletic directors, bettors, and merchandisers all stand to reap an enormous profit depending on the outcome of such a game. In spite of this, there is one group received very little compensation despite their participation in this event, the athletes themselves.

Despite the recent economic woes in sectors across the American economy, the business of college athletics is booming. In 2008, the ten largest athletic departments alone in the NCAA combined to generate just under $1 billion dollars in total revenue. Most of this money is brought in by men's football and basketball, the ever-important revenue sports. However, the athletes in these crucial sports are expected to appreciate their education and pursue no other benefits from their labor. This regulation of the labor market in college athletics creates incentives for athletes to independently attempt to realize the benefits of their own labor.

Last month, five athletes from Ohio State University were suspended for five games apiece for selling game memorabilia. Moreover, they will now be forced to repay up to $2,500 of the money they received. While under the current rules their punishment is justified, why should they be unable to profit from their own labor and property? The value of their scholarships to Ohio State would be around $34,000 per year for an out-of-state student. This is a hefty amount, but considering that their coach, Jim Tressel, made $3.5 million last year in salary alone, allowing the athletes a little leeway would make sense.

Athletes who participate in revenue sports should be allowed to benefit from the labor that supports a university’s athletic systems. Many of these athletes are tempted to leave school early to pursue professional careers or illegally associate with agents or boosters in an attempt to gain a personal return on their time and effort. Even a small, regulated stipend could go a long way toward reducing the incentives on athletes to take action that undermines their education and future.

As a former college athlete myself (at Division III DePauw University), I understand the value of participating in college athletics. I also understand that NCAA rules are in place to protect the integrity of athletes and promote education. For athletes in revenue sports, though, the regulation of their labor market often deprives them of the ability to profit from their labor while they effectively fund a major portion of the school's athletic budget.

In public service announcements, the NCAA claims that over 400,000 athletes participate in NCAA athletics, and “just about all of us will be going pro in something other than sports.” Shouldn't those athletes who make athletic departments feasible through participation in revenue sports receive some personal return on their labor?

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