Opinion: Collegiate athletes deserve to be paid for their efforts

Playing a sport in college is comparable to an unpaid job

The dreaded sound of my alarm would go off at 5:30 a.m. It often seemed like I had just barely shut my eyes, as I had to stay up a little later studying for a test later that morning or to write a paper that was due. No matter – it was time for weights.

Weight lifting often went a little over. We then headed back to our locker room exhausted, swapping stories about how we could barely lift this or how we wanted to die when we did so.

Most of us would then go to breakfast in the cafeteria. Luckily, we were up so early that we were the first students there. After a short meal, we hustled off to class, later to reconvene in the afternoon for practice. 

I was dragging in class. Once the adrenaline wore off from the morning workout, I wanted to nothing more than to nap, but that wasn’t always an option. I had just enough time to drive to the elementary school and fit in some of the required observation hours for my classes before I needed to rush back to the locker room.

The girls started to appear on the softball field by 2 p.m. Although we were not technically required to be out an hour before practice started, we had better be getting extra reps and swings in. By 3 p.m., we were all out of the field where we’d be for the next three or more hours. The sunlight was fading when we finally concluded practice and began our fieldwork duties. 

Some days, practice went so long that we had to rush to get to the cafeteria before it closed for the night. We’d be throwing our dirty clothes into the laundry basket and running down to the trainer to get a quick bag of ice for our shoulders. If it was not my week for laundry it was all the better so that I could make it to the cafeteria on time.

After dinner, I had plenty of work ahead of me. I sat around with teammates, joked around a bit, and wrote that paper that was probably due within the next two days. The next day, I’d do it all over again.

I played two years of Division II softball. Without even being in a Division I program, I knew that softball had become my job – my unpaid job with more hours than I could count. You better have real passion for the sport, or you will undoubtedly burn out.

How do student-athletes do it? It’s typically four years of their life dedicated to a sport and fitness with the extra proviso of school. Everyone says you’re a student and then an athlete, but in that situation, you know it’s really the other way around. 

College is expensive, but as an athlete, that’s all paid for, right? Well, maybe for some. But for most, it’s a partial scholarship, leaving you to figure a way to cover the rest of the expenses. And expenses don’t just include tuition and campus living – there’s food, transportation, books and the cost of having some sort of social life too.

So here’s the question: Should student-athletes be paid for all of their hard work and dedication?

To start, athletics as a whole certainly rakes in quite a bit of revenue for schools, and that wouldn’t be possible without the athletes. Yes, some sports accrue more revenue, but every athlete is working hard to represent their school on some type of a public platform. And even for the sports that do not bring in as much revenue through ticketing, merchandise and media, the fact that the sport draws athletes to the school is generating revenue. And beyond a profit-and-loss statement for the department, athletics attracts donor dollars and is a primary source of branding for schools. That is worth something.

Kat Simonovic, a former Sun Devil swimmer who represented Serbia in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, knows from personal experience the type of pressure that is put on collegiate athletes.

“They’re such a big face or such a big name, and there’s all this pressure,” Simonovic said. “You watch them try and sink this free throw or try and make that field goal, and when they don’t, there’s all (of) this negative backlash. … Is it fair to put them in the spotlight and center this whole conversation and broadcast them on such a mass and exhausting public scale, and they don’t receive any compensation for it? I don’t know. It seems kind of shady.”

Not only are athletes feeling the pressure of their coaches, school work and the public eye, but their schedules are so demanding, it doesn’t really leave much time for them to find a source of income.

With a schedule as busy as mine was, there was no way I would have been able to hold a job. A part-time on-campus position might have been possible, but even that seemed like quite the undertaking.

Simonovic echoed those thoughts. How can an athlete hold a job when balancing their sport, school and any semblance of a social life is already challenging enough?

“College for most other people is a feeling of liberation and of independence and self-discovery and self-expression,” Simonovic said.  “Whereas, being an athlete, you’re a lot more restricted, and you’re pretty cuffed to this rigorous schedule and routine. … We barely had time for hobbies, let alone a job.”  

Now, there is no overlooking that the opportunity to be a student-athlete and represent your school is an honor and a privilege, and non-monetary benefits come with that. However, offering athletes some form of pay can help ease the burden created by demanding schedules that prevent them from holding a job.

Some athletes are lucky enough to have a family that is willing and able to provide the money they need to cover the costs scholarships do not. But many others do not have this luxury, and even a simple stipend could make a huge difference. Surely athletes deserve at least that.

If the NCAA are to ever change policies in order to allow collegiate athletes to be paid for all their efforts, a lot would have to happen first. But the starting place is simple: let’s talk about it. The more this issue is brought up, the greater the likelihood that a solution is found that would be a benefit to all the athletes.

“I think the fact that people are talking about it and questioning it should definitely be noticed,” Simonovic said. "What I see is if these topics or these concerns are being raised and advocated for, there certainly is some justification behind it.”

Reach the columnist at amblodge@asu.edu or follow @AndiBlodgett on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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