“College athletes should be paid.” It’s a very simple sentence. Most people either agree with it or they do not. A few go for the more subtle responses like “They already get paid with a scholarship” and “They already get paid with a scholarship so all we’re negotiating is the wage.” By and large though, you could draw responses on a continuum and divide them into support or oppose.
Precisely because so many people have such strong opinions about amateurism and pay-for-play, rare is the article that actually tries to lure people to the author’s side. That does not mean those op-ed columns were an illusion. It means that the issue of paying student-athletes is normally presented as a moral one. There is a right and wrong side and it does not matter whether one side is more popular than the other.
But while issues of how public institutions spend their money can be a moral issue, they are more likely to be judgement calls. Should these people pay more taxes to provide services for these other people? Should this program get cut in favor of that program? Should we expand this department or contract that one? History may eventually favor one side or the other, but that does not necessarily mean being on the wrong side of history should not be allowed.
Often the trump card in arguing for professionalizing college athletics is the conclusion that either college athletes should be paid or major college athletics should cease to exist. The problem is that is not a conclusion, it is two options. And one option, closing up shop, is widely supported with more detailed arguments behind it than one would ever need in a debate.
Agree or disagree, pay-for-play advocates do a fine job attacking the status quo. They do a reasonable job of coming up with plans to pay college athletes. But the bit they get wrong is that they never do a good job persuading people to support their plan. Unless “opposing this idea is morally wrong” is considered a good persuasive technique.
What is being argued for is not a general idea, but rather a very specific one. There are very few people at this point who disagree with the general idea that there should be more professional opportunities for athletes, particularly athletes aged 18–22. But this debate is not about a general idea. It is about a very specific one: that public institutions, which all colleges are to some extent, should be providing the opportunities. That fewer students should have other opportunities and fewer schools should be able to offer them. And that revenue generation and entertainment should be embraced as the goals driving decision making.
My advice to pay-for-play advocates is to stop treating this debate as a legal one and start treating it as a political one. Rather than assuming that professional athletics and higher education can and should coexist, explain why. Do the research to show it will be better. Convince people that the things being gained are worth more than the things being lost or put at risk. Above all, make the case rather than acting like it has been won.