The Myth of the ‘Exploited’ Athlete

Beginning in 2023, California’s “Fair Pay to Play” law will allow the state’s college athletes to be compensated for their name, likeness, and image. As athletes are not allowed to share in the massive revenues their talents make possible, they are in effect being exploited, supporters of the law argue.

But are college athletes really being exploited? While “conventional wisdom” tells us they are, conventional wisdom is often wrong… as it is here.

While advocates of “Fair Pay to Play” emphasize the financial benefits athletes do not receive, largely missing from the narrative is all of the benefits athletes do receive.

Much of the discussion about college sports typically omits the fact that poor college athletes are already being paid. Disadvantaged student athletes at most big-time athletic programs receive both Pell Grants and “cost of attendance” stipends as part of their scholarships. It’s not uncommon for student athletes to pocket more than $10,000/year (about $850/month) from these sources… Not a large amount, but certainly more than enough for athletes to buy toiletries and an occasional late-night pizza.

Student athletes actually don’t need as much spending money as “regular” students.

For example, regular students typically do not receive free housing. In contrast, college athletes (at least those in the “revenue” sports) are housed in dorms or apartment complexes. If a student athlete had to pay rent and utilities for an apartment or dorm, he’d be shelling out at least $10,000/year.  Over three years, this is a $30,000 benefit. The student athlete who redshirts and finishes his eligibility in five years receives a $50,000 benefit in housing alone.

College football and basketball players also receive all the food they can eat. In most dining halls, breakfast, lunch, and dinner are spread out in a buffet style that Morrison’s customers would envy.

Not only are student athletes not going hungry, they probably eat better than 90 percent of Americans anywhere. How many Americans have the opportunity to choose from dozens of menu items  -- waffle stations, omelet stations, fresh juice stations, four meat choices, eight vegetable choices, salad bars, deserts, any drink they want, with repeat trips allowed? The answer: Probably only athletes who play high-profile sports at big-time colleges.

If athletes paid for such all-you-can-eat spreads, the tab including drinks and taxes might average $12 per meal. At three meals/day, 30 days/month, that’s 90 meals -- a $1,080/month “benefit.” Throw in the “healthy snacks” offered at athletic complex “nutrition centers,” pre-game meals and meals on road trips and athletes receive an annual food benefit of at least $11,000 a year -- $44,000 over four years.

And this tabulation hasn’t included the priciest item of all -- the cost of college proper. Depending on whether a student attends an in-state or out-of-state college, or a private or public institution, tuition and books run from $10,000 to more than $50,000/year.

College athletes also have a platoon of free tutors available to them. Mandatory study halls are common and staffers monitor classroom attendance. Because of these academic “extras,” many student athletes graduate in three or four years when the norm for “regular” students is five or six years. It’s also worth noting that unlike most “regular students,” no college athlete on a full scholarship leaves college with crippling levels of debt.

Players also receive a closet full of clothing and athletic gear. They work out for free in “Taj Mahal” weight rooms, facilities that private citizens might pay $100/month to use.  Athletes have the use of the best “personal trainers” (aka strength and conditioning coaches), nutrition experts, certified trainers, and receive free medical care.

Add it all up and over the course of their college careers “exploited” athletes receive benefits that easily exceed $100,000. For many student athletes, the price tag of room, board, tuition and other benefits is north of $200,000.

If one includes indirect benefits that accrue over the lifespan of the athletes -- benefits made possible in part by the fact the player had a positive experience in college - the total might reach into the multi-millions (as countless former college stars can attest). 

And then there are the intangible benefits. The players are hometown heroes, Big Men on Campus and are generally treated like rock stars. They get to enjoy the special camaraderie of being on a team and working with teammates to achieve a common goal. They “chill out” in plush player lounges featuring billiard and ping pong tables, video games and multiple high-def TVs. They travel on chartered jets, stay in four-star hotels, enjoy bowl trips and the swag bowl sponsors bestow on them.

Student athletes form memories they’ll cherish for a lifetime, make important contacts, are exposed to inspiring people and mentors… all while improving their athletic skills and auditioning for a job whose lowest salary is higher than the salary of most university presidents.  (Even if an athlete fails to make it in the pros, the fame or goodwill he acquired playing college sports is likely to “open a few doors” in his later working life).

Nor does the enthusiasm and passion displayed by players on game days seem feigned. That is, the players certainly look like they are enjoying themselves.

In short, if this is “exploitation,” where does one sign up?

If I could ask one question of former college athletes who have spoken out against the unfairness and corruption in college sports, it would be this: Knowing what you know now, and considering the good and the bad of your own college experience, would you do it all again?

If they are honest, one suspects most former athletes would answer “yes.” If they expounded on the question, they may say something like: “Well, I think the system stinks, but those were some of the best years of my life, and it’s true I wouldn’t be where I am today without that experience.”  

One hopes that in future debates on the topic such “context” will at least warrant a mention.

The only thing that has really changed in college athletics is that today’s TV contracts are much bigger than they were in the past. Stadiums seat more people, ticket prices are higher, and more fans purchase more accessories advertising their allegiance to “their” team. As the sport’s popularity has grown, so too has the money flowing into it.

In previous decades, we heard little talk of “exploited athletes.” It was not considered a travesty that impoverished amateurs played a game that people happened to enjoy and were willing to pay to see. The fact a star athlete might have to wait until he was 20 to sign a pro contract was not considered a major social injustice.

However, somewhere along the way -- perhaps when coaches started earning multi-million-dollar salaries -- the fact that college sport’s growing revenues were not being shared with poor athletes became offensive or “unfair” to a growing number of pundits.

Still, as “victims” go, big-time college football and basketball players actually have a lot going for them.  If some people tell these athletes they are being exploited, this doesn’t mean this is true.

Bill Rice, Jr. is a freelance writer in Troy, Alabama. He can be reached by email at

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