The amount of money generated by college sports is staggering: broadcast rights alone are worth over a billion dollars annually, and this doesn't include tickets sales for live events, revenue from merchandise, or fees from licensing. But the athletes on whose talent and effort the entire enterprise is built get very little in return. As Donald Yee points out in a recent article, these athletes are "making enormous sums of money for everyone but themselves." Even the educational benefits are limited, with "contrived majors" built around athletic schedules and terribly low graduation rates.
Since colleges cannot compete for athletes by bidding up salaries, they compete in absurd and enormously wasteful ways:
Clemson’s new football facility will have a miniature-golf course, a sand volleyball pit and laser tag, as well as a barber shop, a movie theater and bowling lanes. The University of Oregon had so much money to spend on its football facility that it resorted to sourcing exotic building materials from all over the world.
The benefit that athletes (or anyone else for that matter) derives from exotic building materials used for this purpose are negligible in relation to the cost. Only slightly less wasteful are the bowling lanes and other frills at the Clemson facility. The intended beneficiaries would be much better off if they were to receive the amounts spent on these excesses in the form of direct cash payments. This squandering of resources is what economists refer to as deadweight loss.
But are competitive salaries really the best alternative to the current system? I think it's worth thinking creatively about compensation schemes that could provide greater monetary benefits to athletes while also improving academic preparation more broadly. Here's an idea. Suppose that athletes are paid competitive salaries but (with the exception of an allowance to cover living expenses) these are held in escrow until successful graduation. Upon graduation the funds are divided, with one-half going to the athlete as taxable income, and the rest distributed on a pro-rata basis to each primary and secondary school attended by the athlete prior to college. A failure to graduate would result in no payments to schools, and a reduced payment to the athlete.
This would provide both resources and incentives to improve academic preparation as well as athletic development at schools. Those talented few who make it to the highest competitive levels in college sports would clearly benefit, since their compensation would be in cash rather than exotic building materials. But the benefits would extend to entire communities, and link academic and athletic performance in a manner both healthy and enduring. It's admittedly a more paternalistic approach than pure cash payments, but surely less paternalistic than the status quo.