John Oliver has never had much of a problem speaking up for what he believes. In this case, he's taken on the NCAA and large college athletic programs for what he believes is their exploitation of college athletes.
At this point, it's hard for anybody to argue that athletes at major college programs are really "student" athletes anymore. While I'm sure it doesn't hold true for all students and all universities that have major programs, it's hard to doubt that top-tier programs treat their players less as students and more as professional athletes than anything else.
College athletes are supposedly compensated with scholarships; your education is your payment. And that can be a valuable commodity, assuming you actually get an education while you're in school. But when you have highly-regarded academic institutions like UNC being sued for not providing a legitimate education to it's student athletes, it would seem the issue is more systemic than isolated to a few programs. Additionally, according to the US Department of Education, only 65% of student athletes graduate anyway (and those numbers are even a little sketchy). So when the education they were promised isn't even being provided, what do these student athletes have to gain?
Professional athlete salaries? Sure, assuming you actually make it to the pros (a miniscule percentage do), you can definitely make some money, and the average salaries for athletes these days is quite astronomical. Respectively, for the NBA, MLB, NHL, and NFL, averages (in millions) are $5.15, $3.2, $2.4, and $1.9. Given average careers lengths of 4.8, 5.6, 5.5, and 3.5 years (respectively), the average player in each league earns a total (again, respectively and in millions) of $24.7, $17.9, $13.2, and $6.7. Keeping in mind that in most sports about 1.5% of college athletes turn pro (baseball is the exception but also has the most players in minor league systems where they make nothing close to those averages), that means about .75% of college athletes make that kind of money or better.
At least for those athletes that's good news, right? Well, not when you look at the astounding number of professional athletes that go broke shortly after retirement.
But should college athletes be paid to play? They certainly could be paid. Last year, the Texas Longhorns generated a whopping $165.7 million in revenue from their athletic programs. To put that in perspective, the New York Yankees - who are currently valued by Forbes as the fourth most valuable sports franchise in the world - generated $461 million in revenue. And that's a very secure fourth place as those valuations drop dramatically very quickly.
I do agree that paying college athletes changes the game. There's no doubt about it. Anybody that's ever been to even a major college game can tell you the atmosphere is just different than in the pros. Whether it's the students, alumni, and parents that have an attachment to the school (and consequently the players), or the fact that there's no free agency or trades (transfers aren't trades), it's just different ... in a great way. Paying players would simply make the NCAA another professional league, and would definitely change that.
There are other ways to ensure these athletes are looked after by the institutions that make so much money off of them, though. Things that can be done without compromising the integrity and the spirit of college athletics. Here are a few ideas of my own that I believe have merit:
Eliminate scholarships and guarantee a free education for all athletes instead.
As long as you've been a member of the team in good-standing (i.e. you weren't booted off), you are free to get an education at that university for life. If you get injured at your first practice, you still get your education. If you leave after your sophomore year to turn pro and maximize your earning potential while you have it, you can return after you retire to finish your degree. Taking this a step further, you could easily extend this benefit to the immediate family of the athlete so their spouse and/or children were able to attend the university at no cost as well.
100% health insurance coverage for student athletes.
An athlete that gets hurt playing college sports should not have to foot the medical bill for that injury, period. Institute a revenue sharing agreement that goes directly toward full health coverage for all student athletes.
Provide a retirement fund.
Each program should be forced to contribute revenue to a retirement or pension fund that is available for ex-athletes to draw from after reaching retirement age. Additionally, each player agrees to allow the NCAA or individual schools to license the student athlete's name or image and commit 100% of the proceeds to this retirement fund.
Lifetime financial management services.
Considering the number of athletes that go broke after retiring from professional careers, this low-cost option shouldn't be too much to ask.
None of the options above involve direct compensation to athletes but all of them provide at least some sort of financial benefit that makes the time and effort they put into playing sports in college a little more worthwhile so they're not simply taken advantage of during their tenure as a student athlete.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.