At a time when American universities are relying more and more on their sports teams for institutional branding and a lucrative entertainment product, a growing chorus is calling for these schools to compensate the student-athletes who provide that product. Robert L. Kehoe III recently spoke with Duke University political theorist Michael Gillespie about the misguided intentions behind this push for paying players, and how it could undermine an institution that, while flawed, also brings a number of important benefits.

Should the players way, way down there get paid for this spectacle? (Photographer/Flickr)

Should the players way, way down there get paid for this spectacle? (Photographer/Flickr)


Historically, Americans have decided that we shouldn’t pay college athletes. Why?

Well, we do pay them through scholarships, so their pay is both limited and equitable within an academic environment. That is, a starting quarterback gets the same benefits as a full scholarship softball player.

To be fair to those who object to the notion of amateurism historically, it’s a nineteenth century ideal formed by aristocrats to keep the working class out of athletic competition, away from private clubs and elite universities. In the United States, in the early twentieth century, those boundaries didn’t exist, but then you did have a non-amateur system where programs like the University of Chicago functioned as a professional football team. Few, if any, of the players were real students, and some worked as campus janitors to have a connection to the school when they weren’t playing football.

These are two extremes. The NCAA was founded to define and preserve competitive sports for real students on college campuses. To do that, you had to put limitations on how much you could pay people, setting up conditions for Divisions I, II and III, so that college athletics wouldn’t devolve like they did early in the twentieth century.

And also that there would be appropriate competitive balance within those divisions, right?

That’s right. Just as an example, when I was recruited to play football at Ohio State, they had 124 full scholarships available to them. Now the maximum you can have is 85, which changed both because teams were stockpiling players to the detriment of competitive balance, but also because of Title IX.

Does the system work perfectly? No. And does Ohio State have competitive advantages over Miami University of Ohio? Absolutely. But all of this is designed to keep things in some order, given the fact that most programs out there aren’t making money. Now, are some players producing more of an entertainment good than is returned in their scholarship? In a select few cases, sure. But their sports are paying a tax to support all the other athletes on campus, and particularly women.

When you refer to players producing an entertainment good, I can’t help but think of the absurdity of the one-and-done, rent-a-player system currently in basketball.

The rent-a-player thing is absurd, but we’re really only talking about, maybe, fifteen players a year who play one season of college basketball. If we reorder college sports to accommodate those kids we’re missing the bigger picture, which is that sports play a very significant role in ethical formation and education. In that sense, I wish we could require that every student would play a sport. If you look at a college like Williams, I think about sixty percent of the students are varsity athletes. That may be too idealistic for some, but I think the kinds of activities that sports foster are really important for forming democratic habits and behaviors in ways that we as a people don’t appreciate enough.

So for you, this is an institution that’s worth preserving. But very few people seem concerned about the possible extinction of non-revenue college sports, because the outsized commercial presence of football and basketball gives the appearance of unlimited financial resources.

That’s right. We really need to ask ourselves if we think colleges and universities would be better places if they only had football, men’s basketball, and two sports to uphold Title IX. I think the answer is no. With that in mind, I’m less worried about the impact of basketball than I am about football, because football is so expensive in every way. But schools need to maintain budgets, and one of the ways we generate cash follows Marx’s observation that you generate cash by speeding up the money machine. How? When I was going to college, football teams only played nine or ten games a year. Now they play fourteen or fifteen, and that’s a cost written out in those men’s bodies. I’m totally opposed to adding to that cost, but schools and conferences want more games so they can put more people in the seats and generate more revenue.

At Duke, I was on the committee that rewrote the strategic plan for athletics, and one thing we had to acknowledge right away was that we were too reliant on basketball. So what did we have to do? Improve football. Of course, that meant emphasizing all the things I don’t like (renovating the stadium, enhancing “fan experience”), but I was mollified because I want to offer a variety of sports. And let’s face it, we all find ourselves in situations where we’re really dependent on things that we don’t necessarily like. But just because we need football to sustain our other sports doesn’t mean we’re exploiting football players, none of whom ever say they won’t play because they aren’t being paid enough. Most of them would play for a lot less.

Or they would pay to play themselves, as we see in youth and adult sports all over the country. But let’s say the narrative of exploitation completely wins out, and the only value people see in college sports and college athletes is the production of a profitable entertainment, and academic considerations are completely forgotten. What will the landscape of college sports look like?

In effect, you won’t have college sports. You’ll have semi-pro football, basketball, and enough women’s sports to balance out Title IX. That’s it. There just isn’t enough money, and most universities are already bleeding because of athletics. If I were the head of the NCAA and the only way to retain non-revenue sports and competitiveness was to increase compensation, then my starting point would be to allow agents to bid for amateur athletes based on projected future earnings. But then the agent would be responsible to compensate the player while they’re in college. In principle, you could do that, and I’ve always had a problem with athletes not being able to have agents in college – it’s like telling someone they can’t have legal representation.

Stepping back a bit, what do you think a school like Duke would look like if it didn’t place so much emphasis on basketball, or wasn’t so committed to an iconic coach like Mike Krzyzewski?

If you look at the top ten schools in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, top-level sports programs do help generate interest for undergraduate matriculation and retention. So at Duke, we can compete with Harvard, Yale, and Princeton for the same students because we have basketball. At one point I calculated the institutional advantage basketball offers us, as faculty, and it came out to something like 150 chaired professorships. Now some of my colleagues will say if we do away with sports we’ll become Harvard or Princeton, and my response is no, we’ll become Carnegie Mellon.

But Carnegie Mellon is a good school. My question is whether or not a school like Duke is managing its priorities appropriately. In his book The Price of SilenceWilliam Cohan argues that the whole Duke lacrosse scandal was reflective of a culture of entitlement within Duke athletics that’s exemplified in the exorbitant salary of someone like Krzyzewski.

Well, unlike scholarships where we have to set an equitable limit, we can’t do the same with coaches, which is a big issue. As Krzyzewski pointed out to me once, almost all coaches are fired: they almost never retire. Or as one of our former football coaches put it when I told him that some of our faculty were really upset about his compensation: “I’ll trade my salary for tenure.” So maybe that’s something we should consider, something that would alter the dynamic where coaches aren’t working 24/7 to win games and keep everybody happy. Just as an example, I once invited Wojo [Steve Wojciechowski, a former basketball assistant coach at Duke and now the head coach at Marquette University] to talk to one of my classes over dinner. He said he’d do it if he could bring along his wife and son, because he hadn’t seen them in two weeks. So some coaches are paid well, but because they don’t have job security, they live a very stressful life.

All of which points to the fact that we as a culture are investing professional-like money in a product that is aesthetically and competitively inferior to professional sports. We know that if any college football or basketball team went up against the worst team in the NFL, NBA (or NBA D-League, for that matter), they’d get run out of the arena.

Oh for sure, if we’re just talking about skill and athleticism. But my own view is that it’s actually a superior product in lots of ways, especially with regard to how college sports foster a stronger sense of community than pro teams do.

That’s a great point. There’s inherent value in the sense of communal and civic pride that local colleges and universities engender, which has almost nothing to do with the players. Living two miles from the University of Wisconsin’s basketball arena, I bet that stadium will draw almost identical attendance as it did last year, even though Wisconsin will be without Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky. UW fans are going to the games for a different reason than Milwaukee Bucks fans.

That’s absolutely right. When all these schools use the phrase “We are Duke,” or “We are Wisconsin,” that’s something that fans can really identify with in a more meaningful way than, say, “We are the Milwaukee Bucks.”

Players obviously have a big part in that shared experience. Are those who are reducing elite college sports to a labor dispute missing this basic fact?

Absolutely yes, and then look at the enormous long term economic advantages that these players will be afforded if they go to schools with strong academic reputations and alumni networks. The value for the players and the academic/civic community goes both ways, and it’s definitely the case that most commentators are ignoring the non-pecuniary aspect of the debate. That there’s money to be made in sports is not why people are drawn to them. They’re drawn to them because they love playing or watching the game.

The anti-trust claim would suggest that players’ love of sport is being exploited, but “trust” in this case inheres in educational provision – one of the few predictors of future economic stability. Now, if colleges and universities are only using athletes as pawns to increase brand recognition and generate revenue, that trust is surely being violated. But that’s a violation of educational trust, more than financial trust, right?

Well, as the adage goes, you can lead them to water but you can’t make them think. Whatever students (athletes or not) we bring on campus, we can’t keep them from being lazy in college, or getting into drugs, or lured by other distractions. Some kids go to college to get an education. Some don’t.

At Duke, we can show statistically that the students who improve the most academically are the athletes. While everybody else stays about the same, on average our athletes improve about a full grade point from their freshman year to when they graduate as seniors. Part of that can be that some start out not as advanced academically as the rest of our population, but especially there, what we offer academically far outweighs anything additional we could offer by way of financial compensation while they’re on campus.

Putting that point into conversation with what Jay Smith and Mary Willingham outline in Cheated, their book on the abject corruption that academic and athletic leaders facilitated at the University of North Carolina, it’s understandable that some would say these kids are being robbed. Wouldn’t these students be better off if, instead of injecting more money for individual compensation, the university established the necessary conditions for these athletes to get a world-class education?

Absolutely! Look, the key to our success as a society is capital – that is, human capital, which is primarily intellectual. The kind of intellectual capital athletes can take ownership of after their competitive years is remarkable if you look at the statistics. Even if you control for pro sport salaries, former college athletes earn five percent more than non-athlete graduates. Now, if institutions don’t uphold their own academic standards, then they should lose their accreditation. Peers of mine at UNC are legitimately concerned about this when the accreditation services come around, wondering if they are going to have to invalidate a whole generation of degrees that were earned when fraudulent academic practices were taking place.

How then has this narrative of paying college players generated so much support, and what do you say to those who can’t see the bigger picture and broader values of college sports?

A little more, or even a lot more money, is not going to help any of these kids maximize on their educational opportunity, or athletic experience for that matter. With football especially, we really need to ask ourselves, what would all these football players be doing if they didn’t have an opportunity to play at the college level? The fact is that they probably wouldn’t be playing anywhere. And let’s face it, some them are the kind of individuals who could be given to some pretty violent behavior if they didn’t have the physical and psychological release that a sport like football provides. What our culture offers in that regard is no small thing.

And a college football team holds a roster of around 100 players. 

An NFL roster only has 54 spots.

So we would have to assume that colleges would follow suit and cut their teams in half if they had to pay athletes more than their scholarships?

Oh, of course they would.


Michael A. Gillespie is professor of political science at Duke University and director of the Duke Program in American Values and Institutions. He is on Twitter @mgillesp51

Robert L. Kehoe III writes about sport, philosophy, and other topics for The Point, Boston Review, Eight by Eight, and First Things. Robert tweets from @robertkehoe3.