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Should we pay college athletes?

As student-athletes at one Big Ten University attempt to unionize, the debate has begun anew.

Intercollegiate athletics are well integrated into the college and university experience. Student-athletes are provided an opportunity to perform, socialize, develop self-confidence, improve self-esteem and have a healthy, active lifestyle. In addition, they often get experiences and mentorship that can help shape them into young adults that will be productive members of society. The rest of the campus community also benefits as they get to watch competitive sports, develop a sense of loyalty and pride towards their institution, and be part of the campus excitement associated with a particular team.

The most powerful benefit of intercollegiate athletics, however; is probably the financial impact that it has on the institution. Money generated by sports activities helps to fund construction of new buildings, such as dormitories and libraries. Also, it provides funding for research opportunities, professor salaries, and recruitment initiatives to attract more students to the school.

This is particularly evident at large Division I schools with successful football and basketball programs. For example, an poll from 2008 showed that the top four athletic programs in total revenue made well over $100 million dollars each that year. The majority of this money is generated from ticket sales, media rights, branding, and donations. While the bulk of the money is used to fund coach pay, team travel, marketing, and student tuition, none of the money is designated specifically for athlete compensation. As a result of this, the decision as to whether or not to pay college athletes has become a hot topic for discussion both in the sports and lay press.

For example, Northwestern University football players are currently undergoing a legal battle to unionize themselves, citing that "they are employees of the university" and that "their economic value is far greater than their wages, which is defined as the scholarships and room and board stipends offered by the university." They do have a point in that it is their athletic performance that directly translates into significant revenue for the university and football-related personnel. In addition, if one of their players were to sustain a career-ending injury, they are not guaranteed any assurance of a secure financial future.

On the contrary, they are student-athletes (note that student comes first). Many of these players are given yearly scholarships in excess of $60,000 to attend a prestigious university solely because of their athletic ability. In this day and age, when college degrees are vital in securing many career opportunities, this sounds like a deal that's too good to be true. (Moreover, these scholarships have no "strings attached"; meaning that the athletes are guaranteed this money while in high school, regardless of how well they perform during intercollegiate play.).

Paying college athletes raises many questions and creates an extremely slippery slope. If we elect to pay athletes that generate significant revenue, what do we do for those that don't, i.e. soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, and tennis players? Because if you ask them, I'm sure they feel like they work just as hard as anyone else, even though they are not selling out games in huge stadiums and arenas. And then how much money should we decide to pay them? And do we pay those players that don't perform as well, and sit the bench most of their careers? These are all very tough questions with complex and multi-faceted answers.

The fact is, a large majority of intercollegiate athletes will never become professional in their sport. For many of them, college is the last time they will participate in highly competitive athletics. With this in mind, it may be more useful to them to implement strategies to ensure that they graduate, earn a degree, and gain skills that will help them succeed in the workplace as a young adult.

In addition to classroom teaching, providing athletes with supplemental mentoring concerning money management, investment strategies, personal counseling, and life coaching will be beneficial to them regardless of whether or not they go pro in their sport. We should also keep in mind that many of these athletes come from educationally and financially disadvantaged backgrounds and may need extra help and support assimilating to mainstream campus life.

Although not as enticing, this sort of approach is likely to be far more worthwhile to student athletes long-term. Rather than simply giving them a check at the end of the season for their athletic performance, it is the responsibility of the university to provide an environment that nurtures and develops them into productive members of society. Regardless of how this controversial debate is settled, we should always remember that ensuring the health, well-being, and futures of student-athletes is our number one priority.

Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.