In the United States, collegiate student-athletes should be classified as employees of their educational institution (essay and sources)


The debate over whether collegiate student-athletes in the United States should be classified as employees of their educational institutions is a very interesting debate. This topic is not only relevant to the world of sports but also touches on labor laws, education, economics, and social justice.

On one side of the debate, proponents argue that student-athletes dedicate a significant amount of time and effort to their sports, often at the expense of their academic pursuits and personal lives. They generate substantial revenue for their institutions, yet they do not receive a salary or traditional employment benefits. Some argue that this is a form of exploitation, and that recognizing student-athletes as employees would provide them with fair compensation and labor protections.

On the other hand, opponents of this classification argue that student-athletes are primarily students, not employees. They contend that the primary purpose of attending college is to receive an education, not to play sports. They also point out that student-athletes already receive benefits such as scholarships, academic support, and access to high-quality training facilities. Some worry that classifying student-athletes as employees could lead to unintended consequences, such as the potential for specialized contracts and increased payroll costs


In 2015, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a five-member board that governs an independent agency that enforces U.S. labor law as it relates to collective bargaining, played a pivotal role in a significant case involving Northwestern University’s football players. The players sought to become the first college team to form a union, which would have recognized them as employees under federal labor laws. This case was closely watched as it had the potential to reshape the landscape of college athletics by granting athletes employee rights, including the ability to collectively bargain.

The NLRB’s decision to not assert jurisdiction in the case effectively prevented the Northwestern football players from unionizing. The board’s rationale was that asserting jurisdiction and allowing scholarship football players to be recognized as employees would not promote stability in labor relations across the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The board expressed concern about the potential impact on labor relations within the NCAA, noting the unique nature of college sports and the fact that the vast majority of NCAA members are public institutions, over which the NLRB does not have jurisdiction.

This decision was seen as a victory for Northwestern University and the NCAA, both of which opposed the unionization effort. The institutions argued that college athletes are students first, with athletics being a part of their educational experience, rather than employees. The NLRB’s decision effectively maintained the status quo regarding the amateur status of college athletes and their relationship with their institutions.

However, the NLRB made it clear that its decision was specific to the facts and circumstances of the Northwestern case and did not preclude reconsideration of this issue in the future. The board indicated that under different circumstances or with changes in how college sports are administered, it might reach a different conclusion. This statement left the door open for future challenges to the employment status of college athletes and the potential for unionization among them.

Attitudes began to shift in 2021 in response to both legal and legislative pressures, including a Supreme Court ruling in NCAA vs. Alston, which stated that the NCAA could not bar member schools from offering certain education-related benefits to student-athletes.  In it, Justice Kavanagh issues a concurring opinion that is a damning indictment of the NCAA. For more information, check out this law review article.

Although college athletes cannot currently be paid as employees, they do have the opportunity to make money on their name, image, and likeness (NIL) rights for student-athletes. As of June 2021, the NCAA adopted an interim policy that allows student-athletes to profit from their NIL. This, combined with the Supreme Court decision, undermined the NCAA’s argument that the athletes are amateurs.

The NCAA’s adoption of this interim policy marked a significant departure from its longstanding rules that strictly prohibited student-athletes from receiving compensation beyond scholarships and the cost of attendance at their institutions, but there is a lot of flexibility in this. This started to shift the view away from the idea that student-athletes were amateurs.

In December 2023, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) proposed new rules that would allow schools to provide up to $30,000 in “educational benefits” to half of their athletes. NCAA president Charlie Baker unveiled the proposal in a letter to Division I schools. Baker outlined the key tenets of − and reasoning for − a proposed shift in governance that would effectively enable big-money athletic departments to directly compensate athletes by allowing each to create an “enhanced educational trust fund” for them. The proposal would also allow those same schools, likely the upper echelon of the Football Bowl Subdivision, to branch off and make their own rules surrounding roster size, transfers, name, image, and likeness (NIL), among other issues.

Under the proposal, a new competitive subdivision would be created, and the schools in it would be required to provide significantly greater compensation for their athletes than current association rules allow.  “Within the framework” of Title IX, the federal gender-equity law, schools in this new group would have to “invest at least $30,000 per year into an enhanced educational trust fund for at least half of the institution’s eligible student-athletes.” For now, the particulars of how and when athletes would be able to access these payments would be left up to the schools. And the schools would not only be allowed to pay athletes amounts greater than $30,000; they would also be able to provide the payments to more than half of their athletes.

This proposal does not define the athletes as employees, and the NCAA is seeking protection from defining student athletes as employees from the federal government.  Representatives Mike Carey (R-OH) and Greg Landsman (D-OH) reintroduced the Student-Athlete Level Playing Field Act that would prohibit universities from restricting student-athletes from entering into NIL deals and ensure student-athletes would not be considered employees of universities. Ted Cruz (R-TX) announced draft legislation on August 3, 2023, that says a student-athlete would not be considered an employee of an institution, conference, or interstate intercollegiate athletic association for purposes of any federal or state law based on the student-athlete’s participation in, or status as a member of, any varsity sports team. You can do some targeted searches on this legislation to get some additional research support.

If approved, this could potentially address some of the racial inequities in the current system. However, the details of this proposal are still being worked out, and it’s unclear what the net impact will be.

There has been considerable pressure to either treat student-athletes as employees or institute some other type of reform.

Shortly before Charlie Barker’s NCAA announcement, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo  found that the NCAA violates federal law by not recognizing student-athletes as employees, a stance that implicates the NCAA, Pac-12 Conference, and University of Southern California as joint employers. This decision opens the door for student-athletes to potentially unionize by affirming their labor rights. General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo emphasized that misclassifying athletes hinders their right to organize for better conditions. Abruzzo had previously expressed in a 2021 memo her intention to treat student-athletes as employees under the National Labor Relations Act, aiming to rectify this oversight. The ongoing debate over employee classification, intensified by recent scrutiny of the collegiate sports model, has seen significant public and legal attention, including proposed regulatory changes by the Department of Labor. The NCAA, Pac-12, and USC now face a potential settlement in a case initiated by the National College Players Association, with the NLRB poised to file a complaint if no agreement is reached.

And it isn’t just Jennifer Abruzzo pushing things in this direction. In September, men’s basketball players at Dartmouth College filed a petition to unionize with the Service Employees International Union, becoming the first team to do so since 2014 and on  February 4th, the National Labor Relations Board’s regional director in Boston found that members of the Dartmouth men’s basketball team are employees and granted them the right to unionize. hough the decision will be appealed, many legal experts believe that the ruling is a landmark move to further turn athletes into employees. But an appeal to the NLRB’s national board is only the start of what could be a lengthy process. Any ruling can be appealed in federal court as well.

Players have also pushed for legal action. One of the pivotal cases in this debate is Johnson, et al. v. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, et al., where a group of Division I student-athletes, led by former Villanova University defensive back Ralph “Trey” Johnson, are asking the Third Circuit to determine whether Division I student-athletes should be considered employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), The case is pending an appeal in the Third Circuit after the initial ruling. The outcome of this case could have major ramifications for the future of college sports, potentially allowing college athletes to earn salaries and qualify for worker’s compensation benefits.

As of now, the Department of Labor’s (DOL) position is that there is no explicit guidance on how student-athletes are to be classified under the FLSA, and the issue remains unresolved, but they have given some thought to the issue.  The DOL does not explicitly exempt student-athletes from being considered employees under the FLSA, but it suggests that students engaged in extracurricular activities are generally not deemed employees. This perspective is supported by the DOL’s Field Operations Handbook, although it clarifies that students who perform duties outside an educational program and receive compensation could be considered employees.

For years, leaders in college athletics have openly resisted the idea of college athletes being classified as employees. In their efforts to influence Congress, NCAA and college officials have advocated for athletes to be recognized as students rather than employees. Despite over four years of lobbying in Congress and almost 12 hearings, no proposed law has successfully moved out of a committee to be put to a vote. There’s a growing sentiment that a fresh approach is necessary, one that extends beyond the scope of NCAA President Charlie Baker’s Project DI, which requires support from Congress. This new model would likely incorporate a concept of revenue sharing among athletes, or a similar strategy.


Let’s begin by looking at a few key terms


The term “student-athlete” refers to college students who also participate in competitive sports sponsored by their academic institution. It was strategically coined by the NCAA’s first executive director Walter Byers in the 1950s to counter claims that athletes were employees entitled to benefits.

Fram & Frampton, August 2012, Buffalo Law Review, A Union of Amateurs: A Legal Blueprint to Reshape Big-Time College Athletics, Nicholas Fram+ and T. Ward Frampton++ + J.D., University of California, Berkeley, School of Law; M.A., Stanford University, 2007; Clerk to the Hon. George B. Daniels, Southern District of New York, 2012-2013 Term + J.D., University of California, Berkeley, School of Law; M.A., Yale University, 2006; Clerk to the Hon. Diane P. Wood, United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, 2012-2013 Term, http//

When William Rainey Harper became the first president of the University of Chicago in 1892, among his first (and highest paid) faculty appointments was former All-American football standout Amos Alonzo Stagg. Intercollegiate athletic competitions had blossomed over the past five decades, and Harper recognized that an acclaimed football squad could be a “drawing card” for the fledgling institution. He charged his new coach with “developing teams which we can send around the country and knock out all the colleges. We will give them a palace car and a vacation, too.” Department chairs quipped that Harper was “The P.T. Barnum of Higher Education,” n44 but his marketing strategies worked: Chicago soon built a nationally-renowned football program (despite allegations that Stagg was “employing professional athletes”), and enrollment tripled to 5500 by 1909. Amidst public outcry over the increasingly brutal nature of college football-at least twenty players were killed during the 1904 season n46 -sixty-two colleges met in 1905 to form what would become the National Collegiate Athletics Association. From the outset, the NCAA promoted an ethos of strict amateurism, including a ban on all forms of monetary incentives like athletic scholarships. But for the first fifty years of its existence, the organization lacked meaningful mechanisms to enforce its principles. In a major survey conducted by the Carnegie Foundation in 1929, 81 of 112 schools openly admitted violating NCAA policy, “ranging from open payrolls and disguised booster funds to no-show jobs [for athletes] at movie studios.” With member institutions hungry to satisfy the burgeoning commercial market for college sports, “the NCAA’s amateur code, like the Eighteenth Amendment, proved almost impossible to enforce.” By the late 1950s, the NCAA had abandoned a central tenet of its original amateur ideal: universities would now be allowed to pay for promising athletes’ tuition, housing, and other living expenses, regardless of academic distinction or economic need. Such payments to students were already commonplace, of course, but the NCAA hoped formal recognition would sanitize the practice and curb its excesses. n In affixing its imprimatur to the payment of athletic scholarships, however, the NCAA was also positioning itself to guide the explosive economic growth of college athletics that would come in subsequent years. As Professors Sack and Staurowsky explain, highly commercialized college athletics require both a pool of high-caliber athletes and a regulated distribution mechanism for spreading this talent between competing schools. n54 The NCAA’s 1950s reforms “rationalized the recruitment, distribution, and subsidization of player talent . . . laying the foundation for today’s corporate college sport.” Awarding tuition payments on the basis of athletic talent, once anathema to concept of amateurism, became the centerpiece of professionalized college athletics But while the NCAA reluctantly embraced this new vision of “amateurism,” the courts initially balked, finding it a facade for an underlying employer-employee relationship. In two cases in 1953 and 1963, state courts held that scholarship students, injured or killed in the course of their athletic duties, were actually university “employees” for workers’ compensation purposes. Recognizing that “higher education in this day is a business, and a big one,” the courts found that an injured athlete could have “the dual capacity of student and employee. . . . The form of remuneration is immaterial.” Shaken by the prospect that courts might recognize college athletes as “employees,” the NCAA invented the now ubiquitous watchword “student-athlete” as a direct response to these legal defeats. Walter Byers, who served as the NCAA’s influential executive director from 1951 to 1987, recounts in his memoir the panic such cases provoked. The workers’ compensations cases raised the dreaded notion that NCAA athletes could be identified as employees by state industrial commissions and the courts. . . . We crafted the term student-athlete, and soon it was embedded in all NCAA rules and interpretations as a mandated substitute for such words as players and athletes . . . . The term “student-athlete” was designed not only to “conjure the nobility of amateurism, and the precedence of scholarship over athletic endeavor,” but to obfuscate the nature of the legal relationship at the heart of a growing commercial enterprise.

The origins link to a case where the widow of a football player who died from game-related injuries filed for workers’ compensation death benefits. The NCAA argued the athlete was not an employee since he received a sports scholarship, and the widow was denied.

Walter Byers, the NCAA’s first executive director, whose 36-year tenure spanned the term’s coinage and vigorous promotion, disavowed its use in his 1995 memoir “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes.”

Student-athletes juggle dual responsibilities: academics like attending class and meeting GPA requirements, as well as athletic duties like practices and competitions. However, critics contend the term downplays their significant revenue-generating role in favor of student status, reducing rights, and enabling NCAA exploitation by excluding adequate compensation.

While debates over the term continue, the term remains widely used for individuals balancing school and sports.

Chaz Gross, JD, April 2017, Chicago-Kent Journal of Intellectual Property, Modifying Amateurism: A Performance-Based Solution To Compensating Student–Athletes For Licensing Their Names, Images, And Likenesses,

n31 See NCAA, 2015-16 NCAA DIVISION I MANUAL 60, art. 12.02.13 (2015), [hereinafter NCAA 2015-16 MANUAL] (defining “student–athlete” as “a student whose enrollment was solicited by a member of the athletics staff or other representative of athletics interests with a view toward the student’s ultimate participation in the intercollegiate athletics program. Any other student becomes a student–athlete only when the student reports for an intercollegiate squad that is under the jurisdiction of the athletics department, as specified in Constitution A student is not deemed a student–athlete solely on the basis of prior high school athletics participation.”).

For more on the debate over what “student-athlete” can and should mean, see Wikipedia. Is it time for this definition of a student definition to end?


Classifying college athletes as employees would fundamentally transform compensation models in college sports. Currently, athletes receive scholarships rather than salaries.

As employees, athletes would be entitled to minimum wage, overtime pay, and traditional employment benefits like health insurance and workers’ compensation for sports injuries. Standardizing injury treatment through workers’ compensation could improve support consistency for injured athletes.

Athletes would also gain opportunities to negotiate additional pay based on revenue-generation contributions. This could promote more equitable revenue distribution, addressing current imbalances where substantial athletic department incomes fail to benefit athletes directly.

Overall, employment status introduces a baseline compensation requirement while opening negotiations for potential further pay based on commercial value additions—changes sparking both opportunities and complexities. The core shift revolves around directly linking athletic pay to market worth, in contrast to the current scholarship-only approach focused on enabling student participation.

For now, at least student-athletes have failed to win arguments that they should be treated as employees.

The argument surrounding whether student-athletes are employees is not novel. Student-athlete advocates have been fighting for employment status because it provides additional benefits for student-athletes. Those benefits include the potential to be eligible for workers’ compensation coverage. However, one hindrance is that student-athletes, even post-Alston, are still not able to be salaried or receive direct cash payments from their university.

Historically, student-athletes were not considered employees of the university they attend. Students have asserted their personal testimony to show how they function as traditional employees on their respective campuses. Arguments that trace the everyday life of a student-athlete and demonstrate their various workloads tend to show that student-athletes spend more time than their professors doing “work” related activities (game day, practices, weightlifting, team dinners, etc.). However, courts have been slow to adopt students’ arguments, largely because of NCAA governance.

Well, at least until February 5th. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

What the Resolution Leaves Unsaid

The resolution leaves a couple of important things unsaid.

Firs, as will be discussed below, it doesn’t say what will happen to current NIL deals. If student-athletes are paid, will they still be allowed to engage in the NIL deals?

Second, how will compensation be determined? Will they all be paid the same, or will they be paid based on free market value?

The question surrounding pay-for-play then changes from whether it will happen to when it will start and what it will look like. A date certain cannot be placed on when college athletes will receive compensation for playing, but the time is coming near. As for how they will be paid, this Article focuses on examining two potential methods to pay college athletes—a performance-based model and a free market model. The Duke Model relies solely on the performance of college athletes to determine the amount of payment each college athlete will receive. It allows universities and colleges to compensate athletes based on their academic and athletic achievements. The amounts and various categories of payment (as described below in detail) can be adjusted quite easily depending on the varying levels of financial success of each conference. The free market system is another attractive payment model as it serves as the primary means of recompense in the United States economy. College athletes would be free to negotiate and obtain compensation for playing just as everyone else involved in college athletics is currently able to negotiate and obtain compensation for themselves, including NCAA executives and employees, college sports announcers and analysts, coaches, and athletic directors. Part I of this Article examines the signs of the times that clearly indicate pay-for-play is coming sooner rather than later.

Note: The source makes a very strong case for paying college athletes.

The Pro

There are a number of potential benefits.

Solving the limitations of NIL deals.  Name, image, and likeness (NIL) policies allow college athletes to earn compensation through commercial endorsements and other opportunities related to their fame. However, significant restrictions remain in place. Athletes cannot receive direct “pay-for-play” salaries from their schools or accept payments clearly intended to improperly influence recruiting decisions. All deals must align with fair market value – schools and boosters cannot coordinate inflated endorsements explicitly in exchange for commitments to attend a particular program. The NCAA and some states also enforce rules capping certain categories of deals or total compensation if amounts would pose an unfair recruiting advantage. This inconsistency among states is confusing for many.  Disclosure requirements further ensure transparency around arrangements.

There is a risk that athletes may be taken advantage of by unscrupulous agents or sponsors The regulations surrounding NIL are a confusing array of various laws and guidelines, leading to confusion, poor oversight, and questionable practices among individual states and schools. Contrary to popular belief, only a handful of players will get paid through these NIL deals.

In essence, while NIL enables athletes to capitalize on commercial fame similar to professionals, tight guardrails limit school-funded salaries and improper recruiting enticements. The policies expand earning potential through endorsements but prohibit deals functioning as backdoor “pay-for-play” ploys by schools and boosters trying to lock down commitments. NIL increases opportunities, but with restrictions to maintain distinction from professionalized salary models at the collegiate level. The basic tension around direct school compensation remains intact. BIPOC athletes may not be benefitting from these deals as much as other athletes.

Small schools won’t be able to compete with large-school NIL deals.

Paying college athletes directly for their participation in sports can address some of the issues associated with Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) deals, but it cannot solve all of them. Here are specific problems that paying athletes can and cannot overcome:

NIL Problems Paying Athletes Can Solve

Currently, NIL deals often benefit star athletes in high-profile sports, leaving less prominent athletes with fewer opportunities. Direct payments to athletes could help ensure a more equitable distribution of funds among all players

Financial Literacy and Tax Implications: Many college athletes lack the knowledge to manage the financial and tax implications of NIL deals. If colleges were responsible for paying athletes, they could also provide financial literacy training and tax assistance as part of their compensation package

Exploitation by Third Parties: Athletes may be vulnerable to exploitation by agents or sponsors in NIL deals. A structured payment system by colleges could offer more protection and oversight, reducing the risk of athletes being taken advantage of

Problems  with NIL deals that Paying Athletes Cannot Solve and Might Make Worse

Competitive Imbalance: Paying athletes directly does not address the issue of competitive balance. Wealthier programs may still be able to offer more attractive compensation, perpetuating the existing disparities between programs

Professionalization of College Sports: Direct payments could further blur the line between amateur and professional sports, which is a concern for those who value the amateur status of college athletics

Regulatory Complexity and State Laws: The patchwork of state laws governing NIL deals creates an uneven playing field. Direct payments by colleges would still be subject to these varying state laws unless federal legislation is enacted to provide uniformity

Time Management and Academic Performance: Student-athletes are already balancing sports and academics. Adding the responsibilities associated with managing direct payments could further strain their time management and potentially impact academic or athletic performance

Loss of Team Cohesion: Direct payments could exacerbate issues of jealousy and resentment among teammates if there is a perception of unfair compensation. This could harm team dynamics just as uneven NIL deals might.

One thing that the resolution leaves open is whether or not NIL deals would continue if athletes were paid.  If NIL deal opportunities ended up being eliminated as a result of decisions to pay the athletes directly, this could result in more fairness, but, on the downside, it could reduce payments to athletes who are currently making a lot of money off of the NIL deals.

Financial Empowerment

Being paid could provide athletes with financial empowerment and the ability to support themselves and their families, potentially reducing the financial strain many face while contributing to the wealth of their institutions. The commitment required from student-athletes often resembles that of a full-time job. Balancing rigorous training schedules with academic responsibilities leaves little to no time for them to engage in part-time work that non-athlete students might pursue for extra income. This intense commitment, without the possibility of financial compensation, is seen as an unfair burden on student-athletes

Educational goals

The argument also extends to the educational disadvantages that student-athletes face due to their sporting commitments. The time and energy devoted to sports can detract from their academic pursuits, with some athletes unable to fully capitalize on their scholarships. Paying athletes could alleviate some of the financial pressures and allow them to focus more on their studies. Improved financial stability might positively impact graduation rates for athletes, who often have lower graduation rates compared to their non-athlete peers

Critics of the current system argue that not paying student-athletes, especially those in revenue-generating sports, amounts to exploitation. These athletes put their physical well-being on the line, contributing to the financial success of their institutions without receiving a share of the profits. This dynamic is particularly concerning given the racial composition of players in major sports like football and basketball, where a significant number of athletes are Black, raising concerns about racial equity

Economic contribution

One of the strongest arguments for paying student-athletes is their substantial economic contribution to their colleges and the NCAA and college sports, which is now a $18 billion business. Sports like football and basketball generate billions of dollars annually through ticket sales, merchandise, and broadcasting rights. Given this massive revenue generation, proponents argue that it’s only fair to compensate the athletes who are directly responsible for this income. The recent changes in NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness) policies indicate a shifting landscape in college sports, acknowledging the value that athletes bring to their institutions beyond just their performance on the field or court. This shift supports the argument that further compensation is both fair and necessary

Public Support

There is strong public support for compensating college athletes, particularly among younger demographics and those closely following college sports. This support reflects a broader societal recognition of the athletes’ contributions and the inequities of the current system

Reducing Racial Inequality

In his 2010 expose of the NCAA, sociologist Billy Hawkins traces the relationship between predominantly white colleges and universities (PWIs) and Black athletes. For Hawkins, the framework of major college sports mirrors enduring mechanisms of economic, political, social, and cultural pressure, resulting in an “intercollegiate athletic industrial complex” at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs). This represents a modern incarnation of a plantation mentality that has historically exploited Black individuals in the United States for financial benefit. A review of this book and ideas is available in this Guardian article.

Paying athletes could significantly reduce racial inequality by addressing the economic disparities that often exist along racial lines within the realm of college sports and professional athletics. The current system, particularly in college sports, has been criticized for perpetuating racial inequities because a significant number of college athletes in revenue-generating sports like football and basketball are Black but the revenue from their sports is transferred exclusively to coaches and non-revenue generating sports played by wealthier students, yet they do not receive financial compensation for their contributions that generate substantial revenue for their institutions. Black athletes are overrepresented in the most profitable college sports and whose labor has historically been undervalued. Paying athletes would provide direct financial benefits to many Black athletes who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, helping to close the wealth gap and provide these athletes with resources that could benefit their families and communities. Additionally, scholarships alone may not fully address the financial needs of student-athletes, which can impact their educational experience. Paying athletes could alleviate financial stress, allowing them to focus more on their academic pursuits and potentially improve graduation rates among Black athletes.

Beyond the issues of inequity in pay (or lack thereof) are also related to effective opportunity differences in educational opportunity. The Knight Commission’s report, “Achieving Racial Equity in College Sports” highlights systemic racial inequities in college athletics and proposes a series of recommendations to address these issues. The report identifies a persistent gap in graduation rates between Black and white college athletes, with Black athletes often graduating at lower rates. It also points out that Black athletes are underrepresented in leadership roles within college sports, despite making up a significant portion of athletes in revenue-generating sports like football and men’s basketball

The report argues that the current system in college sports does not adequately support the educational and professional success of Black athletes. It calls for transformative actions to improve the college experience for Black athletes, coaches, and athletics personnel across all competitive divisions. The report emphasizes the need for the NCAA and its member institutions to act decisively to close educational opportunity gaps and create equitable pathways for Black athletes’ success

The report’s recommendations include eliminating standardized testing for athletic eligibility, holding institutions accountable for recruitment and hiring practices to achieve diversity and equity, investing in support programs that enhance Black athletes’ college experience, creating more equitable opportunities for Black athletes to assume leadership roles, and altering the distribution criteria and uses of funds through the C.A.R.E. Model

Professional Sports Prep

Treating student-athletes as professionals helps prepare them for the realities of professional sports, providing them with valuable experience in managing contracts and compensation.

Furthermore, compensation could provide athletes with the means to invest in their future, whether that’s further education, starting a business, or other professional development opportunities that can lead to long-term career success beyond sports. Paying athletes acknowledges the labor they contribute to their sports programs and the revenue they help generate. .Paying athletes would be a step toward rectifying this imbalance and ensuring that those who contribute to the success of sports programs are fairly compensated.

The Term.

There is criticism of the term that extends both from its origins and from the fact exploitation of Black student labor.

Student-athlete keeps college athletes in their place.

Today, the majority of revenue-producing athletes in the sports of football and men’s basketball are Black. They are coached mostly by white men. The man who coined the term student-athlete, was also a white man. Using the term student-athlete perpetuates the ideals of amateurism while further preventing a pay-for-play model.

Molly Harry is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia studying higher education with a focus on intercollegiate athletics and teaches the course Athletics in the University. Her research interests include education through athletics participation, academic reform for college athletics, and the college athlete experience. Diverse Education, Abolish the Term “Student-Athlete”,

These actions largely favor one group: white men. These actions largely disadvantage one group: Black men. We can no longer deny the prejudicial, arguably racial, undertones associated with calling this higher education population student-athletes. In spite of this history and the fact that the man who created the term came to condemn it, scholars, practitioners, members of the media, faculty, coaches, and athletes themselves continue to use it. However, research demonstrates that priming, or subconsciously cueing, athletes with the term student-athlete, results in a decreased academic performance. This may be due to a cognitive imbalance, the perception that these two identities are in conflict. Priming an athlete can result in lower academic performance, which may make some athletes engage even less in their education, continuing the cycle and unfairly supporting the dumb jock stereotype. So why do we continue to use this term? In my course, Athletics in the University, I introduce students to the history and tradition associated with student-athlete. Some students are unfazed by the term and its origination, just as some students don’t consider the racist names of the buildings they enter.

The Daily Tarheel reached similar conclusions.

The Con


Paying student-athletes would raise costs for colleges and universities in several ways. Firstly, the direct financial burden of paying athletes could be substantial. For instance, a proposed bill in California suggests that colleges could pay athletes up to $25,000 a year. The fair market value of the salaries would be very high.

This would place a significant financial strain on institutions, especially those that operate on tight budgets and barely break even, and the introduction of athlete salaries could lead to increased program expenditures without necessarily increasing revenues

This could exacerbate financial disparities between institutions, with wealthier schools potentially gaining an advantage in recruiting top athletes.

Furthermore, many colleges might not have the funds to pay all of their athletes, leading to difficult budgeting decisions and potentially the cutting of less profitable sports. Many small colleges are struggling to survive as it is.

The elimination of less profitable college sports is considered detrimental for several reasons. Firstly, it can negatively impact students and employees associated with these sports, often leading to controversy, protests, and legal challenges These sports programs, while not generating significant revenue, provide opportunities for student development, co-curricular support, and serve as a marketing tool for enrollment and engagement tool for alumni and friends

They also contribute to a higher quality of life on campus, attracting more applicants and indirectly generating revenue for the institution

Secondly, the elimination of less profitable sports can have long-term challenges for enrollment, fundraising, and campus life

Research shows that participation in college sports is valued by hiring managers, and former athletes often have higher salaries and career success than other graduates

Furthermore, non-revenue sports often provide a sense of community and increase the quality of life on campus

Lastly, the elimination of these sports can lead to a redistribution of resources, often favoring more affluent athletes in revenue-generating sports, which can exacerbate socioeconomic disparities.

And, despite speculation, it’s unlikely to lead to economic gain for the universities.

Reduced academic growth.  The introduction of employment rights could complicate the balance between athletics and academics, potentially making it more difficult for student-athletes to succeed in the classroom.

Beyond cutting other sports, the costs could threaten smaller schools.

Paying college athletes introduces several challenges that threaten the viability of smaller colleges, primarily through financial strain and competitive disadvantages. This complex issue intertwines with the broader economic challenges faced by smaller institutions and the dynamics of college athletics funding.

Smaller colleges often operate with limited financial resources. Paying athletes would introduce a significant new expense that many of these institutions could not afford without sacrificing other academic or athletic programs. This could lead to deeper debt and financial instability. Additionally, the collegiate athletic system mirrors the broader U.S. financial structure, where a small percentage controls the majority of the wealth. Paying athletes could exacerbate these disparities, making it even more difficult for smaller colleges to compete with wealthier institutions. This could result in the rich programs getting richer, while the poorer ones struggle. Furthermore, the ability to pay athletes could become a major factor in recruitment, giving wealthier colleges an advantage in attracting top talent. Smaller colleges, unable to offer similar incentives, would find it increasingly difficult to compete for athletes, potentially diminishing the quality and competitiveness of their programs.

The financial burden is the main reason the most higher education institutions oppose paying the athletes.

Legal and Tax Implications

As employees, student-athletes would be subject to federal, state, and possibly local taxes on their income. Institutions would also need to navigate the complexities of employment law, including overtime pay for hours worked beyond standard limits. Institutions would be required to pay student-athletes at least the minimum wage and overtime for the hours they work, including practices, games, and any other required activities. This could significantly increase payroll costs for colleges and universities, potentially leading to budgetary constraints or the need to reallocate resources.

Furthermore, Potential Loss of Tax-Exempt Status: If student-athletes are classified as employees, there is a possibility that schools could lose their tax-exempt status. This would mean that donations to athletic programs might no longer be tax-deductible, potentially reducing the amount of charitable giving from donors

The classification could also impact the eligibility for and structure of athletic scholarships, potentially leading to a reevaluation of how these scholarships are awarded and maintained. It could also create employment expectations that are inconsistent with academics.

What are some of the broader practical implications?

Classifying collegiate student-athletes as employees could have profound consequences for the NCAA, reshaping the landscape of college sports in several significant ways:

Employment rights and litigation: As employees, student-athletes would gain access to a range of employment rights and protections, including health insurance, workers’ compensation for sports-related injuries, and potentially retirement benefits. While this would benefit student-athletes, it would also require institutions to navigate complex employment laws and potentially face increased liability. If the court rules in their favor and college athletes are thereby classified as “employees”, these athletes can then bring discrimination claims under employment statutes, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. By determining that college athletes are employees and thereby entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay, the door then opens for claims of unequal pay.

Equity Gap

Men in Division I sports would end up being paid more than women in almost any sport.

Unionization and Collective Bargaining

Employee status could open the door for student-athletes to unionize and engage in collective bargaining, which could lead to strikes or other labor actions if disputes arise. This would introduce a new dynamic into college sports, where negotiations over pay, working conditions, and other employment matters could become contentious

Impact on the Collegiate Sports Model

Shift in the Student-Athlete Paradigm: Recognizing student-athletes as employees would fundamentally alter the traditional model of collegiate athletics, which has long emphasized the amateur status of athletes. This could lead to a reevaluation of the role of sports within educational institutions and potentially blur the lines between college and professional sports

Potential Erosion of Educational Values: Critics argue that classifying student-athletes as employees could undermine the educational mission of colleges and universities, shifting the focus away from academics and towards athletics. This could impact the balance between being a student and an athlete, potentially compromising the integrity of the educational experience

Title IX Compliance

If student-athletes are classified as employees and paid a salary, the costs for athletic departments would skyrocket. Most college sports do not generate enough revenue to be profitably self-sustaining—only major men’s sports like football and basketball typically make money. If schools have to pay all student-athletes, the financial burden would be massive, especially for women’s sports and less prominent men’s sports that currently lose money.

In this situation, schools would be forced to make drastic cuts to athletic spending to afford student-athlete salaries. However, Title IX requires schools to provide equal participation opportunities, scholarships, and treatment for male and female athletes. Schools couldn’t legally cut more women’s sports than men’s sports to reduce costs. With limited options for reducing spending without violating Title IX, some schools may find the financial strain unsustainable.

The only way for schools to pay student-athletes and not violate Title IX would be to eliminate most non-revenue generating sports programs entirely. This would mean only keeping profitable men’s sports like football and basketball, plus the minimum women’s sports required for Title IX compliance. By cutting the majority of both men’s and women’s sports teams, schools could afford student-athlete salaries but would gut athletic opportunities down to the bare minimum required by law. Essentially, either violate Title IX or devastate sports beyond recognition. For many schools, paying student-athletes could necessitate eliminating most sports to avoid illegal gender discrimination.

While major spectator sports like football and basketball generate the most commercial revenue, non-revenue generating college sports provide immense educational value by promoting academic development, gender equality, accessible athletics, diverse sports role models, and lifelong health and wellness for a wider range of students. Eliminating non-revenue sports would severely undermine the expansive student opportunities and institutional compliance that college athletic programs are meant to provide.

See How Title IX could apply to student athletes.

Hurts college athletics

Shift in Amateurism: The NCAA’s model of amateurism would be challenged, potentially leading to a more professionalized approach to college sports. This could alter the appeal of college sports for some fans and sponsors who value the amateur nature of collegiate athletics. This could also undermine athletes ability to compete in other amateur athletic events such as the Olympics.

Amateurism in college sports aligns athletics with academic priorities and student personal growth in a way that professionalized sports do not. Keeping college athletes unpaid amateurs reinforces that they are students first who happen to compete, not professional entertainers. This grounds athletic programs’ purpose in educational development rather than commercial incentives. Amateurism also helps separate college sports from pro sports, maintaining college teams as part of community-tied academic institutions rather than disconnected commercial enterprises. Additionally, unpaid college sports provide access to athletics for socioeconomically diverse students who could not otherwise afford to attend college or hone skills outside academic eligibility. Preserving amateurism keeps the focus on using athletics to enrich the student experience as opposed to generating revenue from entertainment businesses. Ultimately amateurism helps signify that college sports exist for fundamentally different reasons than professional leagues.

Changes in Recruitment and Competition: An “arms race” could develop, with wealthier schools offering higher compensation to attract top talent, which could lead to increased competition and potentially widen the gap between programs with different financial resources

Philosophical Objections

Erosion of Educational Values: Critics argue that classifying student-athletes as employees could undermine the educational mission of colleges and universities, shifting the focus away from academics and towards athletics. This could potentially compromise the integrity of the educational experience

Gender Inequities

The NCAA has expressed concern that classifying college athletes as employees could create gender inequities. The organization argues that if only profitable sports are funded, it could lead to imbalances in opportunities and resources between men’s and women’s sports, as described

Court Clog Links

Classifying student-athletes as employees could open a “Pandora’s box” of legal and operational challenges. For instance, it could lead to unionization and collective bargaining, which could result in labor disputes and strikes. It could also complicate compliance with Title IX, which requires equal opportunities for men and women in sports


Democrats generally show more support for paying college athletes. A Bucknell Institute for Public Policy national survey found that 62% of Democrats support the idea of paying collegiate athletes, compared to 34% of Republicans

Another poll found that 78% of Democrats were in favor of direct compensation for college athletes, compared to 56% of Republicans

Republicans, while less supportive overall, are not universally opposed. Some Republicans have expressed support for a national standard governing college athletes’ names, images, and likenesses (NIL)

However, there are also Republicans who have expressed concerns about the federal government’s role in this issue. For instance, Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said compensating college athletes would be a “huge mistake”

Bipartisan agreement has been found in some areas. For example, both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate Judiciary Committee have expressed that college athletes should be compensated for their name, image, and likeness

However, the issue is not strictly partisan and can vary based on individual perspectives. For instance, some Republicans have argued for a free-market approach, suggesting that athletes who generate significant revenue should be able to profit from it

On the other hand, some Democrats have emphasized the need for economic justice and equity for athletes, particularly those from marginalized communities

In conclusion, while Democrats generally show more support for paying college athletes, there is a range of views within both parties. The issue intersects with broader debates about economic justice, labor rights, and the role of government in regulating industries.

Additional Citations

Day, Danielle (2021) “Pay for Play in College Athletics: Why Cost of Attendance?,” University of Florida Journal of Law & Public Policy: Vol. 31: Iss. 2, Article 6. Available at:

Weber, David P. and Real, Daniel L., Will the Professionalization of Student-Athletes Kill the NCAA? (February 24, 2023). Boston University Law Review, 103 B.U. Law Rev. 1591 (2023)., Available at SSRN: or

Revenue Sharing: A Potential Method of Compensating Athletes

Are College Athletes Employees Under the Fair Labor Standards Act?