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Paying student athletes

04/18/07 12:00AM By Brian Porto
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(HOST) As the end of the academic sports year approaches, commentator Brian Porto is been thinking about the perennial question of whether or not to pay college athletes.

(PORTO) The longstanding debate about paying college athletes remains at an impasse. Considering the compelling arguments on both sides, this inertia may not only be understandable; it may be good public policy, too.

Supporters of paying the athletes argue that they are entitled to share in the wealth that their colleges and coaches realize from successful seasons and lucrative appearances in postseason bowl games and tournaments. Opponents counter that college athletes already receive compensation, namely, athletic scholarships that defray the costs of tuition and fees, room and board, and textbooks. That is payment enough, say the opponents.

Curiously, the best arguments on each side are often absent from the debate. The best argument for paying the athletes is truth in advertising; a full athletic scholarship should cover the full cost of attending college. This is especially so for football and basketball players, whose families are often poor and whose training schedules frequently preclude holding part-time jobs during the school year. The best argument against paying the players is that no payment plan can even be considered until several legal questions have been answered satisfactorily. For example, would payments make college athletes employees eligible for workers' compensation, union membership, and collective bargaining? And would colleges have to pay social security taxes for their athlete-employees?

Like the best arguments, the best solution is often absent from the debate, too. The best solution is to revive the former practice of paying athletes a small monthly stipend, as part of their athletic scholarships, to cover incidental expenses. The former amount was fifteen dollars, but $150 to $200 seems appropriate today. This arrangement would avoid the legal problems associated with payments that the IRS could reasonably construe as salaries. To elude another potential legal problem, namely, sex discrimination, colleges would have to pay not only football and men's basketball players, but a comparable number of women athletes, too.

Once these hurdles are cleared, the only remaining barrier to paying college athletes would be finding the money to do so. This barrier could be formidable at most colleges, which either break even or lose money on sports. Come to think of it, maybe inertia is the best policy, after all.

Brian Porto is an attorney and a free lance writer.

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