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The real reason college football players don't get paid

Jake Novak
Key Points
  • College football returns Saturday, with a high-profile rivalry game as Miami takes on Florida in Orlando.
  • The date of the game serves as another reminder of how major college football is a business that takes all too much advantage of the fantasies and impossible dreams of its players and fans alike.
  • Paying players would threaten and possibly kill the "college" part of college football and reveal it for the exploitational minor league system for the NFL that it's long been anyway.
Jerry Jeudy #4 of the Alabama Crimson Tide catches a touchdown pass against Tyrique McGhee #26 of the Georgia Bulldogs in the fourth quarter during the 2018 SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 1, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Kevin C. Cox | Getty Images

College football returns Saturday, with a high-profile rivalry game as Miami takes on Florida in Orlando.

Fans are getting a treat with this early start to the season. But the date of the game serves as another reminder of how major college football takes advantage of the fantasies and impossible dreams of its players and fans alike.

That's because big time college football cannot function without luring thousands of young men into what's become an increasingly bad economic bargain. It's also because college football doesn't work without the fans falling for the illusion of the student-athlete.

Starting a season on Aug. 24, well before many colleges start freshman orientation, is the latest reminder that colleges with major football programs aren't even trying to create a facade of a season that corresponds to actual class schedules.

A 2014 study by the National Labor Relations Board showed that players at major college football programs "spend 50 to 60 hours per week on their football duties during a one-month training camp prior to the start of the academic year and an additional 40 to 50 hours per week on those duties during the three- or four-month football season."

With that kind of schedule, when is there any realistic time for classes and studying? Hint: there isn't any.

Strong argument for paying players

Much of this argument was hashed out publicly in 2017, when a group of football players at Northwestern University ultimately failed in their attempts to unionize and seek some kind of cash salary. But their efforts produced a strong argument for paying college football players.

For players to be forced to dedicate so many weekly hours on the field, even at an elite academic institution like Northwestern, the very idea that academic scholarships are fair compensation was thoroughly debunked.

As then-UCLA star quarterback Josh Rosen told an interviewer in 2017: "Look, football and school don't go together. They just don't. Trying to do both is like trying to do two full-time jobs."

Even for a player who wants to try being a serious athlete and a serious student at a big time program, the hurdles are extremely high. Rosen and others over the years have talked about how coaches and administrators at these schools discourage athletes from taking certain classes. And when the occasional scheduling conflict between practice and a class arises, guess which choice wins.

So why do so many young men playing college football sacrifice so much time, risk injury, and at least put off preparing for the job market by playing the game?

The answer is obvious in that almost all of them have dreams of playing in the NFL, where football is also a job but one that pays millions of dollars. College football is thus an industry that survives on hope as opposed to any actual give-and-take between employee and employer.

Speaking of that hope, it's really more like a pipe dream. NCAA data shows that of the 73,660 young men playing major Division I college football, just 1.5% will ever play in the NFL.

These are the reasons why paying college football players in the top conferences would be the ethical thing to do. If the "scholarship" tradeoff doesn't provide any actual scholarship, what else can be done?

But if you think being stingy with the players is the reason the colleges continue to resist that idea, you're missing the big picture. The colleges know that paying their players would destroy the fans' crucial acceptance of the student-athlete myth. That myth is just as important to the sport's survival as the myth that a decent amount of the players have a legitimate shot at the NFL.

The biggest threat to college football

A good example to prove that point is minor league baseball. The minor leagues do bring out fans across the country, but the sport gets a tiny fraction of the attention and television coverage that college football enjoys. Baseball as a sport is still popular, but when sports are taken down a notch from the top professional level, they need something like the pride and pageantry of college football to compete with the big leagues.

Paying players would threaten and possibly kill the "college" part of college football and reveal it for the exploitational minor league system for the NFL that it's long been anyway. By the way, the NFL loves that as this minor league functions without a dime of cost to the league's owners. Major League Baseball teams have to spend big bucks on their farm team systems.

It should be noted that not all conferences in college football operate this way. The Ivy League and many other FCS and Division III conferences do strike a real student-athlete balance that provides the players a much easier path to a real education and success.

At many of those schools, alumni who played varsity sports tend to be more successful and even more generous to their alma mater than non-athlete alumni. That's why those schools and conferences are a much more realistic and ethical choice for talented high school athletes and their parents who want to keep their sports and career aspirations live in a realistic way.

None of this will likely resonate with the 70,000 fans who will jam Camping World Stadium in Orlando for Saturday night's Miami-Florida game. But it should.

For those of us who love the game and the very idea of a fair free market for goods and services, big time college football is a sad example of a fantasy that mostly goes wrong for the people making the biggest sacrifices to believe in it.

Jake Novak is a political and economic analyst at Jake Novak News and former CNBC TV producer. You can follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.