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Public Policy: Pay Student Athletes?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Martin Sellers
August 24, 2021

The concept of paying student athletes has many complicating factors that public administration will have to sort out. But this can be a slam dunk for everyone—a real game changer—if executed properly. Fifteen states now have rules and regulations for providing student athletes with some form of monetary remuneration. However, each state’s rules and regulations differ in what can be provided and how, for the use of a student athlete’s name, image or likeness (NILs). But can you imagine a college football player transferring from University of California to Duke and dealing with status changes, transfer requirements, spending requirements and rules set up by individual schools located in different states? The year before COVID-19, the NCAA joined with mass media, mainly TV, to produce over 10 billion dollars in revenues, none of which went to students. With the prospect of third party supporters providing funds to athletes and schools, the probability of expanding that amount is a sure bet.

Eyes on the Prize

Student athletes have been understood, in academia, to be students first and athletes second. In college, student athletes like Michael Jordan (at the University of North Carolina) and Zion Williams (at Duke University) [too bad they did not play at the same time] were the exception. In NCAA Division 1 (including the NAIA) there are 608 colleges and universities that offer high school athletes’ opportunities to play at the college level. Of the 195,000 college student athletes, there are 99,000 mostly partial scholarships awarded. Currently, there are 19.5 million students enrolled in all colleges and universities. Those receiving scholarship support make up .005% of the total. And those who are in the same class of athletes as Michael Jordan or Zion Williams are a very small minority. So, what can public administration do to help the matter?

Make It to the End Zone

Whatever you’re thinking regarding student athletes receiving pay, there are good arguments on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Massive amounts of money are made from TV sports (mainly football and men’s basketball). None of that money filters directly to student athletes. Yes, there are scholarships that student athletes receive allowing them to go to college for free. And given the heated debate over student debt, at least this group will not have to worry. Keep in mind, too, that only 1% of student athletes are awarded a four-year scholarship. Those who receive scholarships to play sports are dogged by costs for other needs such as food (special diets and greater than normal appetites), cars (most colleges are in rural locations), tutoring, counseling, entertainment and travel home. And in all of this, student athletes take on a good deal of risk including physical injury, illness, failing grades and loss of the college dream.

Many student athletes come from disadvantaged circumstances and are first-generation students. And certainly, a free education, or even partially free, is not easily dismissed. What about the ideal of amateurism? We are proud of those who went to the Olympics this year and stood for America. How will accepting pay for NILs affect the ideal of the amateur student working toward entry into the pros?

I’ve Been Fowled

There are numerous difficulties making the matter frustrating to athletes, academia and policymakers. First, there is no current government regulatory body that can monitor paying students for use of their NILs. The NCAA is a private corporation, not government or quasi-government, that dictates compensation, workout schedules, hours of practice, and more. States making rules separately will lead to frustration and uncertainty, and most likely lawsuits. Misuse of payments that may lead to paying for performance would be uncontrollable for a private body such as the NCAA. To what degree will corruption enter the game? Will colleges begin competing for students by seeking out the biggest dollar contributors, supporters or companies? The way to reduce difficulties and frustration is to create a national agency or department to develop rules for how, when and under what conditions pay can be made available. A federal agency could set up a tracking system to monitor the process. If this does not happen, states will take it upon themselves to deal with shifts in authority, competing elements, transfer competition, applicant pools, questionable lobbying, financial losses or misappropriation and athlete targeting.


Public Administration exists for shaping policy, and is experienced with lobbying, political pressures, interest groups, courts and the law making apparatus. It may not be perfect, but the public administration policymaking process is transparent and historically successful at maintaining information and making decisions. Advocates on both sides will influence policymakers through education, lobbying, politicking, mass media and social media. It is a powerful process that affects legislators in creating laws and regulations, and a process that allows the public to speak and be informed. Creating a national agency to monitor, track and provide direction and guidance to pay student athletes, if paying student athletes is where we are headed, makes good sense.

Author: Martin P. Sellers, PhD, MPA, MBA, is Dean of the School of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Lincoln Memorial University (LMU) in Harrogate, Tennessee. He led the creation of the MPA program at LMU in 2015 which went fully online in 2019. Before academics, he worked in all four levels of government, city, county, state and national, including a stint in the US Department of Agriculture. In addition, during a year as Dean of Research at LMU, he was able to encourage collaboration between diverse groups and develop pathways for collaborative scholarship. He may be reached at [email protected] and @martysellers.

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