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