Should College Athletes Be Paid? Ethical Analysis
Unethical Compensation Practices: Coaches and Illicit Incentives
The athletic recruiting process can be an emotional roller coaster. It can be merciless on both sides. Coaches can change their minds about recruits, and likewise, recruits can change their minds about the coaches. Coaches will unethically lie to athletes and don’t care how it will affect them as an individual. As Former Mount St. Mary’s University basketball player, Shawn Atupem points out, “I’ve seen coaches lie about the amount of scholarships they have so they can coerce players to commit earlier than they were ready to.”
By committing to a school early in the recruiting process, athletes may risk the chance of missing out on a bigger opportunity or miss out on the chance to go to a school that was ranked higher on their list. Illegal Incentives Once a recruit has signed their National Letter of Intent, they have signed their official commitment to that particular university. They have committed to go to school and simultaneously perform, representing that university in their sport.
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This equates to 30+ hours of practice, games, weight-lifting, traveling, and more each week, in addition to full-time classes. In return, the university will provide free tuition, room & board, and even food stipends. While a full scholarship provides free tuition, athletes are not allowed to obtain part-time jobs to pay for anything else that they have going on in life, such as helping to provide for their family, a car and car insurance to travel home with gas to put in their car, extra money for food when the café on campus is closed.
Coaches and others involved know this struggle, and they use it to their advantage. While the NCAA prohibits payment to athletes, many coaches will disregard this rule and offer their athletes cars, money, and other gifts in order to keep the athlete at their school, performing, and helping them win games. To the NCAA, this type of behavior is unethical and illegal, but it happens all of the time. “I don’t think it’s a secret that the business of college athletics is full of corruption. I have seen coaches give people jobs so they can get kids to come to the school, pay their parents, and arrange a whole new life for a player so they would choose their school” (S. Atupem, Personal Communication, May 23, 2018).
Illegal payments to college athletes have historically been an ethical issue across all college athletics. For example, Chris Weber, one of the top men’s basketball players at Michigan, began receiving cash incentives from school boosters from junior high throughout his collegiate career. One of the most famous cases was that of Reggie Bush, who gave back his Heisman Trophy after an investigation found that he had taken incentives while playing football at USC. “Bush forfeited his 2005 Heisman Trophy as a result of the scandal, which included allegations of improper benefits received by him and his family while he played at USC” (Schrotenboer, 2015). Another example is when Ohio State football players decided to personally sell their own autographs, jerseys, and rings for cash, which the NCAA prohibits.
“The NCAA hit Ohio State with a one-year bowl ban and additional penalties Tuesday for violations that started with eight players taking a total of $14,000 in cash and tattoos in exchange for jerseys, rings, and other Buckeyes memorabilia” (ESPN, 2011). It is no secret that college athletes generate revenue in many ways, including ticket sales and memorabilia. While the universities, coaches, TV networks, and athletic apparel companies are profiting greatly, the players are left out of any profit-sharing. Some argue that college athletes should be paid for their performance and promotion of the school, which would then “clean up” the unethical behavior that exists within the NCAA today and adequately compensate college athletes.
Former North Carolina Central basketball player Michael Glasker stated, “With the amount of money that athletes generate for the universities, I don’t feel like we should have to live for four years broke. Not only do the athletes generate money from the actual games they play but think about a big university. Those schools sell jerseys, t-shirts, and all types of apparel because of the athletes. I don’t think you can even quantify the amount of revenue generated by the athletes” (M. Glasker, Personal Communication, May 22, 2018). It is a common practice for colleges and universities to sell replica jersey tops at the campus bookstore for fans to purchase. The number on the jersey usually represents the number of the best player for that team.
Academic Ethical Challenges & Coach Misconduct
The better the player, the more revenue the replica jersey brings in. As Shawn Atupem also stated, “Having a job was completely out of the question. The only time we were able to have a job was in summer school, but that was for the school because we had to be there. Basketball was a full-time job. Workouts 6 am, classes 8-1 pm, practice 3-6 pm; there was no time for a job. There is barely time to do school work” (S. Atupem, Personal Communication, May 23, 2018).
While paying athletes a salary may cause many other issues to arise, the NCAA could potentially make it legal for athletes to accept some small help when they need it rather than taking away their accomplishments and eligibility if they accept financial assistance from those who are being paid off their talent. Academic Misconduct The NCAA struggles with ethical misconduct surrounding the academic work of student-athletes. In order to be eligible to participate in NCAA Division I games, student-athletes must maintain a minimum GPA, typically 2.0. While this is set as a standard to ensure student-athletes are not failing out classes, it can lead to academic fraud in attempts to keep athletes eligible.
“The University of North Carolina and Syracuse are just two of the most recent universities to be under the spotlight for academic scandals involving student-athletes. UNC offered a “no show” class for student-athletes (where students received grades for phantom classes that they didn’t attend), and Syracuse allowed academically ineligible athletes to compete” (Square, 2015). In my personal experience, all athletes at William & Mary were assigned an academic advisor who would tell the athletes which classes to take to get an “easy A” or classes in which the professor gave preferential treatment to athletes. If an athlete was struggling in a particular course, the athletic academic advisor would reach out to the professor and speak to them in order to work out a solution.
In one particular class, the teacher told the football players that she never gave athletes anything less than a “B” in her class. This type of preferential treatment is unfair and unethical when student-athletes are not held accountable for the same work as students who are not athletes. Not only is it unethical, but it is teaching the student-athlete that they only need to play their sport, and everything else will come easily. In reality, that is not the way the world works. In order to take better control of academic fraud and ensure that collegiate athletes do not receive preferential treatment, the NCAA should take away the team academic advisors and force the athletes to use the same academic advisors that regular students in college use. Abuse of Athletes Lastly, in my experience and those close to me who also participated in collegiate athletics, coaches very often abuse players, even if it is not physical abuse. Many athletes report experiences of their college coaches verbally abusing them on a regular basis.
For example, in 2016, “George Washington University fired Mike Lonergan as its men’s basketball coach in the wake of an independent investigation into claims he verbally abused players” (Kilgore, 2016). I personally knew a player on that team, Darian Bryant, who confirmed in an interview, “Coach Lonergan constantly screamed, cursed, and demeaned us as his players. He would also play mind games and tell you one day you will be his starting guard, and the next game you may not even get in the game” (D. Bryant Personal Communication, May 20, 2018).
While coaches are hired to be leaders and mentors, many, just like Coach Lonergan, take advantage of their role and treat their players unethically. Coaches get paid a lot of money and renew their contracts more often when they have winning seasons. Coaches only win games based on having talented athletes in order to compete at a high level. If their talent is suddenly injured, coaches may intimidate athletes to play through their injuries. My wife played Division I college basketball, and when she had a hand injury, her coach told her if she did not play through the injury, she would lose her starting spot for the entire season, and the team would suffer because of it. In another instance, she complained that her ankle was causing a lot of pain, and she requested an MRI to discover why there was pain. The athletic training dept. And coaches refused to give her an MRI, so she went to an outside doctor to find out the issue.
Coach Intimidation & Athlete Well-being
When she received her results, the orthopedic specialist recommended surgery on her ankle. By the time she finally had surgery, she had played the entire season with torn ligaments and broken bone fragments in her ankle due to intimidation by her coach. College athletes who are on scholarship know that the scholarship is not guaranteed for all four years. In fact, it is renewed by the coach and the university each year. If the student-athlete does not play through injuries or has an injury that they cannot recover from, there are times the coaches will not renew the scholarship.
In 2009, a freshman for Oklahoma Men’s Basketball experienced this hardship. “After committing to the University of Oklahoma as a ninth-grader, Hardrick finally took the court in 2009. But over the next two years, the 6-foot, 8-inch forward would play just six minutes. An injury to his knee has put his future — and his scholarship — on hold” (Cassilo, 2011). Many athletes who lose scholarships due to injury cannot afford to remain enrolled in the university in which they are attending. The intimidation by coaches, Athletic Directors, the training department, and more can be defined as mental abuse that most athletes do not know is happening at the time. This intimidation results in athletes playing through injuries that will later cause chronic issues to their health.
To the coaches and the programs, it is simply about their bottom line and not the long-term health of the athlete at hand. Conclusion Based on research, interviews, and my own personal experience, it is conclusive that the NCAA has key ethical issues that are consistently happening. The NCAA is taking some steps to decrease the number of ethical misbehaviors across all sports. For example, the men’s basketball program has developed a coalition of coaches that are dedicated to mentoring and teaching other coaches how to identify and make good choices in reference to ethical behavior. They have named this group “Division I Men’s Basketball Ethics Coalition.” This is one step in the right direction to cultivate leaders and coaches who will consciously do the right thing and show integrity within their leadership.
Every sport in the NCAA should force coaches to be part of their own coalition and educate each other to combat unethical behavior. In addition to this, the NCAA should consider placing higher scrutiny upon coaches during the recruiting process. At this time, the NCAA knows they have a large issue with coaches being deceitful and contacting recruits before they should, but they do not regulate and penalize around these issues as much as they do when tangible incentives are offered. The NCAA also does not investigate enough regarding abuse of student-athletes, as most cases are often kept secret within the school’s athletic department, and the player will suffer for speaking out. Most schools will try to work with the coach rather than have bad press. As exemplified above, these unethical issues have enormous effects on student-athletes and should not be overlooked in order to protect student-athletes and the well-being of their future.
- Atupem, S. (2018, May 23). Personal Communication.
- Schrotenboer, B. (2015). Reggie Bush gives back his Heisman Trophy. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaaf/2015/04/10/reggie-bush-heisman-trophy-usc-taken-away-vacated/25547207/
- ESPN. (2011). NCAA hits Ohio State with 1-year bowl ban. ESPN. http://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/7319796/ncaa-hits-ohio-state-buckeyes-1-year-bowl-ban-other-penalties
- Glasker, M. (2018, May 22). Personal Communication.
- Square, A. (2015). Academic Misconduct in College Sports. Huffington Post. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/academic-misconduct-in-co_b_6284116
- Kilgore, A. (2016). George Washington fires basketball coach Mike Lonergan after investigation into verbal abuse. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/dc-sports-bog/wp/2016/09/16/george-washington-fires-basketball-coach-mike-lonergan-after-investigation-into-verbal-abuse/
- Cassilo, D. (2011). Injuries Leave Athletes on the Sideline. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/19/sports/ncaabasketball/injuries-leave-athletes-on-the-sideline.html