December 5, 2018

Should Extraordinary College Athletes Be Paid?

by Rachel Graves, Gianna Venuti and Mads Michaelsen

A football player looks out onto the field

(Guest editorial, originally published in the November 29, 2018 issue of The Delphian)

Can a “good” athlete become “extraordinary” in college? Should an “extraordinary” athlete get paid to play a sport they mastered while in college? The answers to these questions are part of a controversial debate about whether student athletes playing college-level sports should be paid.

We believe that extraordinary athletes deserve what businesses call merit pay.

Merit pay is defined as “an approach to compensation that rewards higher performing employees with additional pay, [which is also known as] incentive pay” according to Susan Heathfield of the Does it make sense to consider student athletes as employees? In colleges with million-dollar revenues, student athletes indirectly contribute to their revenue and overall success. Colleges and universities benefit from community members buying tickets to games, purchasing athletic merchandise and making financial contributions to support college teams. In fact, since the $10 million deal between the NCAA and CBS to broadcast the Men’s Basketball Tournament took place in 2010, the value of College Sports has only increased. Today’s colleges have taken a business approach that makes sports programs profitable. Given these changes, colleges should consider merit pay for extraordinary athletes.

There are advantages and disadvantages to merit pay for extraordinary student athletes. For some athletes, merit pay can be a form of extrinsic motivation. Merit pay allows them to work harder into the sport. Merit pay can even become work, as a motivation for the average athlete to increase the work they put into their sport, thereby increasing the level of the sport being played. Merit pay will also let athletes know whether or not they are performing at a high level compared to the rest of their team, which may result in increasing the athletes’ understanding in terms of what they need to do on the field. Furthermore, using merit pay to pay athletes would help overcome economic challenges that the student athlete may have since there is no time for a job.

There are also disadvantages to merit pay, however. One is related to the concern about favoritism. Each sport uses statistics in different ways. The types of sports (for example, soccer) where statistics do not say much about a person’s performance could result in a subjective assessment made by the coaching staff that may have favorites on the team. Another consequence of merit pay is the fact that the time and resources used to evaluate player performances could be used in a more constructive way. This can be a major disadvantage when it comes to picking out extraordinary athletes, because not all players perform at their best potential every day. Instead of wasting the time on focusing who performs the best, coaches could use that time on teaching their players to potentially perform at a higher level, then making it easier to notice their abilities. One final disadvantage would be communication troubles. Some players may think they are not as valuable if they are not receiving merit pay. If a coach is not clear about what qualifies as superior performance, a lot of players will have no sense of how and what they need to do to improve and it can cause an athlete to lose confidence.

Does merit pay work for sports at the college level? We think that if athletes perform at their highest level and contribute to team wins, then maybe universities should consider merit pay. Merit pay motivates a player and even the rest of the team to work toward the goal of being chosen to receive merit pay. On top of that, it may be a financial support for athletes. Although there are some downsides to giving merit pay, it provides a powerful message of how coaches may want the athletes to perform and where an athlete stands.

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