Student-Athlete Compensation Debate Persists

For the first time in its history, Wheeling Jesuit University has a football team. Under the direction of head coach Zac Bruney, the Cardinals will play several exhibition games this inaugural year. Then, they will have a full schedule in the NCAA Division II of the Mountain East Conference starting next fall, playing such teams as Concord University, West Liberty University and Glenville State.

While it is well known that the Ohio Valley is “football country,” the decision to add a football team at this point in time seems baffling to some and exciting to others. For many people, though, it reignites the often heated question of whether college athletes should be paid.

Successful college sports programs bring in major revenue for their universities, even in smaller divisions like the MEC. Ticket sales are only a small part of those profits with merchandise and other related items making up a substantial portion of income. In 2017, 27 schools made more than $100 million from their sports programs.

In addition to direct revenue, athletics generate other benefits for their universities, including donor dollars. In the case of West Liberty University, for example, sports have increased its asset holdings tremendously in just the last year with the new Belmont Savings Bank Indoor Practice Facility (a $400,000 project) and the West Family Athletic Complex (a $1 million dollar project).

While there is little doubt that sports enhance the lives of students and fans, the enduring debate about paying student athletes continues to raise questions about fairness and exploitation. The main argument against paying student athletes makes sense in that students play in exchange for “full rides.” In reality, many student athletes are given full or partial scholarships that cover tuition, but do not cover room and board, books, fees and other expenses. Given that student athletes are often either forbidden to work or certainly have no time for a job, this leaves them in a precarious situation and makes it even more challenging for them to stay in school.

That said, paying student athletes above and beyond tuition would change the entire relationship between athletes and universities. Suddenly, schools become employers instead of educators, and the IRS gets involved. In a recent issue of Money, John R. Thelin spells out the monetary pitfalls to paying student athletes. The model he uses would pay them $100,000 a year instead of tuition, room and board, and books. After taxes, tuition, room and board, and books, he estimates that the average college athlete would have just $100 of that $100,000 left, which would certainly not be a win for any student.

And yet, as a professor who has been privileged to teach student athletes at a variety of universities, including legendary basketball school Xavier University, I know how hard these young people work. Their days include early morning gym time, full schedules of classes, required study tables, practice and more. Is it fair for them to then have no money to buy new gear, attend concerts or put gas in their cars?

Not long after Wheeling Jesuit announced its new football team, WJU Athletic Director Kevin Forde stated, “Athletics can truly be a ‘front porch’ for the university, engaging the community in a unique way.”

Given all of the tremendous good that sports teams offer universities and their surrounding communities, it is time that we rethink (again) paying student athletes. I am sure that I do not know the answer, but I do know that the stereotype of the typical “meathead” student athlete is far from the truth based on my 22 years of experience in higher education. Student athletes work hard to bring fans excitement. Fall weekends would not be the same without them.

Christina Fisanick, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English at California University of Pennsylvania and a 1996 graduate of West Liberty University. She lives in Wheeling.