Should We Pay Division I Student Athletes? Pros & Cons

By Ryan Nivakoff

Division I athletics is a big business. According to a 2013 report in USA Today, Division I schools’ spending on athletics rose twice as fast as spending on academics between 2005 and 2010.


“Spending on D-I athletics hasn’t slowed down since, even as flagship state universities cut liberal arts programs and slash research funding. And that’s raising very legitimate questions about whether student-athletes deserve a cut of the action.” — Ryan Nivakoff


If we value pro athletes enough to give out seven- and eight-figure contracts without batting an eye, why shouldn’t we give young competitors — who work every bit as hard — the same courtesy?

Let’s take a closer look at some common arguments for and against paying D-I student athletes.

Why We Should Pay Division I Student Athletes

Proponents of paying student-athletes are ascendant, and they’ve got some of the biggest names in sports on their side.

“Whatever the solution is, the status quo must change,” writes UCLA (and, later, NBA) legend Kareem Abdul-Jabaar.

Here’s why they believe student-athletes get short shrift right now.

1. They’re Already Working for Free

During the season, student-athletes essentially work two full-time-equivalent jobs — and even more during tournaments, when they’re on the road for days on end. The time they spend on the practice field or in the video room is time they can’t spend working side jobs or fitting an elective class into their schedules.

2. Their Labor Mainly Funds Athletic Programs, Not Academics

The fruits of student-athletes’ labor accrue almost entirely on the athletic side of the ledger. Although it’s reasonable to argue that marquee championship teams indirectly benefit academic programs by raising schools’ profiles, it’s crystal clear where the bulk of the benefit falls.

3. Their Families Would Reap the Benefits

Many student-athletes come from families of modest means — families who’ve made incalculable sacrifices just to get them in the door. Paying student-athletes is, in effect, paying their families back for all they’ve already done.

4. Paid Athletes and Their Programs May Be Less Susceptible to Corruption

Unpaid student-athletes are vulnerable to ethical lapses that may put them on the wrong side of school and NCAA regulations, jeopardizing their enrollment and competitor status. Legitimate pay reduces the temptation to accept unsanctioned gifts or endorsements.

Why We Shouldn’t Pay Division I Student Athletes

Opponents of student-athlete pay have some persuasive arguments in their corner, as well. Among the most common:

1. Paid Athletes May Face Higher Expectations

Most D-I student-athletes compete for four or five years and bow out gracefully. They’re held to high standards of ethics and performance by their coaches, to be sure, but their obligations are a far cry from their professional counterparts’. There’s an argument to be made that this should remain the norm — after all, these are student-athletes.

2. A Student-Athlete Payscale May Set Them Apart from Non-Athletes

D-I student-athletes already operate at some remove from non-athletes, and a payscale that heightens expectations around their athletic performance could exacerbate these distinctions. The status quo may be better suited to student body cohesion.

3. Most Student-Athletes Aren’t Worth That Much

D-I volleyball players might be immensely talented, but they don’t draw the same crowds as their football- or basketball-playing peers. If student-athletes are to be paid commensurate with the revenue they generate, most simply aren’t worth that much. Perhaps it’s better to stick with the more egalitarian status quo.

Have Your Say

What do you think? Should Division I schools pay student-athletes? Do only certain athletes deserve compensation? Or is the status quo — free rides for top competitors — enough?


Ryan Nivakoff, a successful entrepreneur and is an alumnus of Columbia University, where he played Division I football and baseball. He currently lives in New York, where he enjoys playing golf, spending time with his family, and following college sports

Keeping That Balance: 5 Tips for Serious College Athletes Not Planning to Go Pro

By Ryan Nivakoff

Let’s face it: most student-athletes don’t go pro. Even if you blew the field away in high school, you shouldn’t count on your college athletic career to pave the way for a stint in the big leagues.

To be sure, you may well make the cut. But you’d be wise to have a Plan B, too — to plan for a day when you’ll need to use the lessons you learned in class, not on the field.

1. Set a Class Schedule You Can Actually Make

A mind is a terrible thing to waste. So is the opportunity to get a first-rate education. Even if your athletic talents have earned you a free ride (or close to it) through college, you’d be foolish not to make the most of the academic resources at your fingertips.


“Plan your class schedule accordingly, scheduling as many modules as practically possible at times you know won’t conflict with your athletic obligations.”

— Ryan Nivakoff


If your athletics schedule is too unpredictable to support a manageable credit load, consider supplementing in-person coursework with online classes and distance learning. Most schools allow residential students to take classes online, and some professors are happy to tailor workarounds when schedules demand.

2. Choose a Major or Concentration You Really Enjoy

You shouldn’t dread the “scholar” aspect of your athlete-scholar status. Choose a major, minor, and/or concentration in which you’re actually interested — and that you can see forming the basis for a career that lasts long after your competitive sports career ends.

3. Set One-, Five-, and Ten-Year Goals

Know where you want to be, and when. The summer before your freshman year, take a day to set near-, medium- and long-term goals for yourself. If you already know you’re not going to go pro, your five- and ten-year goals will likely be career- or growth-oriented: a stint in the Peace Corps, perhaps, or an associate attorney position at a white-shoe law firm. (Hey, why not aim high?) There’s no wrong answer here — the point is to imagine life around and after your athletic career ends.

4. Get Three Square Meals

Before saying their goodbyes, your parents no doubt admonished you to eat well in college, and you probably rolled your eyes. You’ve got more important things to worry about than getting three square meals a day, right?

Eh, not many. You’ll need lots of calories to keep pace in competition, and you’re less likely to suffer a serious injury if you’re healthy. Don’t let a ramen-and-chips diet jeopardize your playing career.

5. Make Your Priorities Clear to Your Coaches and Professors

Student-athletes must manage two constituencies between which there’s rarely love lost: their coaches and professors.

Fair or not, you have to step up and take control here, because you can’t count on either side willingly ceding ground to the other. You’ll need to think hard on your priorities — in short, whether you’d rather be your absolute best on the playing field or in the classroom — and communicate this clearly.

Make no mistake: you can excel in both arenas, but you won’t reach your peak in either if you fail to set clear boundaries.

Winning Isn’t Everything

Whatever else you learn during your career as a scholar-athlete, remember that winning isn’t everything — even when it feels as if everything is at stake. It sounds corny, but years from now, you’re likely to be defined less by what you achieved on the field or court and more by the relationships and memories you made along the way.

You’ve got one chance to get it right. Here’s to making the most of it.


Ryan Nivakoff, a successful entrepreneur and an alumnus of Columbia University, where he played Division I football and baseball. He currently lives in New York, where he enjoys playing golf, spending time with his family, and following college sports.