Who Should Get Paid in College Sports? To Be Fair, It Should Be All “Students” Who Contribute

Travis Burchart
7 min readDec 23, 2023

“It’s time for the NCAA to recognize that the rules prohibiting athletes from sharing in the massive revenues we help to generate are harming all college athletes. There are hundreds of people involved in NCAA sports [emphasis added] but the only ones who cannot be paid are the athletes; I’m proud to stand up for all college athletes to correct that injustice.” — Duke football player Dewayne Carter

So who are the “hundreds of people involved in NCAA sports”? Most will limit their answer to administrators, coaches, staff, and student-athletes. But this answer has a blind spot. Yes, there are “hundreds of people involved in NCAA sports,” but no, athletes aren’t the only “students” involved.

The Injustice of Unpaid “Students”

“It is difficult for any fair-minded American to look at the vast amounts of money flowing into college sports and not see hypocrisy in its reliance on an unpaid labor force.” — Wolken, D. (2023, August 18). Survey shows most people want college athletes to be paid. You hear that, NCAA?. USA Today.

When talking “unpaid labor,” there’s an injustice if we focus solely on student-athletes. NCAA sports are more than just athletes; there are also “hundreds” of non-athletic students who help generate “massive revenues” for colleges. If we’re gonna be “fair-minded,” they should be paid too.[1]

I’m talking about …

… the unpaid cheerleaders who shout for hours and risk injury on the sidelines.

… the unpaid students who sweat for hours in a suffocating mascot’s costume.

… the unpaid band members who perform for hours, supporting school pride and smothering opponents in noise.

… the unpaid students who stand for hours, packing stadiums, intimidating rivals, and giving life to gameday.

“Contribution” … More Than Just Competition

It’s untrue that “college athletes” generate “massive revenue” for universities. The truth … only the star/starting athletes generate tickets sales and TV money.[2] Fans/ESPN don’t pay to watch backups and walk-ons. That said, anyone who talks about the “hundreds of people involved in NCAA sports” means “all athletes.” I agree with this, but it opens the door to a larger conversation regarding “contribution.”

It can be argued that backups and walk-ons “contribute” and thus deserve payment. Through practice, they help generate wins. Winning teams sell tickets and earn TV time, resulting in more revenue. But this argument can be applied equally to cheerleaders, mascots, band members, and student sections. They also “contribute” and thus (if we’re gonna be fair-minded) deserve compensation.

Part of this contribution is “atmosphere.” Non-athletes help create a gameday environment — through traditions, chants, songs, etc. — -which makes tickets more valuable. And non-athletes (like minor characters in a movie) create more watchable TV, thereby contributing to broadcast revenue. But if that’s not convincing, then this is … non-athletes also contribute to wins and losses, the same as the athletes on the field.

The 12th Man: A Player in the Stands

Imagine …

… a Duke basketball game without the Cameron Crazies.

… a University of Texas game without the Longhorn band’s cowbells.

… a University of Colorado game without Ralphie’s Run.

… an Oklahoma State game without the Paddle People.

All of these (and there are hundreds more) depend on students — none of them athletes. All contribute to wins and loses … they’re part of the “homefield advantage.” All generate revenue for their respective universities … they’re part of the gameday experience, which is built into the ticket price.

A good example is Texas A&M’s famous “12th Man”[3] student section. It’s billed as the nation’s “largest student section” … approximately 37,000. That’s …

… 37,000 students making noise and intimidating opponents.

… 37,000 students increasing ticket sales (i.e., the gameday experience).

… 37,000 students featured during a televised broadcast.

… 37,000 students providing an asset to the university (i.e., the “12th Man” is a money-making trademark for A&M).[4]

A&M’s student section checks the same boxes as A&M’s football team … both contribute to wins and loses; both generate “massive revenue” for the university. The rebuttal might be that none of these students actually play in the game.[5] But the same’s true for backups and walk-ons. Sure, they play in practice, but nobody’s paying to watch a team practice.

More Than the Average Fan

A counterargument might bring up professional sports fans. “If college (i.e., student) fans deserve payment,” the argument goes, “why not professional fans too?”

College fans are different from professional fans; they’re asked to do more. At the college level, student fans, band members, cheerleaders, and mascots don’t just make noise. They also sell the university to ticketholders, future students, athletic recruits, alumni donors, and broadcasters. At the professional level, these things are mostly non-existent. This is why student fans — and all the students who support a college team — have greater economic value.[6]

There’s this too … professional fans are just ticketholders; when the game ends, the contract (i.e., the ticket) ends too.[7] But student fans are more than just ticketholders; they also put money back into a university via:

1. Tuition, room, and board.

2. Ticket sales and/or athletic fees.

3. Branding, gameday experience, and wins/losses.

So the unfairness is compounded:

1. Student fans pay to be on campus.

2. Despite paying to be on campus, student fans also pay to be at the game.

3. After paying to be on campus and at the game, student fans don’t get paid for their revenue-generating labor.

There Is No “I” in “College Football Team”

“I’m proud to stand up for all college athletes to correct that injustice.” — Duke football player Dewayne Carter

“Injustice” is a myopic word. Through the lens of self, we see the injustice against us (and those like us). In this way, “injustice” is framed to fit one group and one group only.

But when it comes to college sports and paying students, the injustice — if we’re going to be fair — includes more than just those on the field. The injustice applies, as Dewayne Carter notes, to “the hundreds of people involved in NCAA sports.” At a school like Texas A&M, this includes the 100+ student-athletes on the football team.[8] But it also includes the 37,000 student fans that A&M uses for marketing, recruiting, donations, homefield advantage, and ticket sales.

[1] Of course, this will never happen. But if we’re talking fairness, it’s something to think about.

[2] The other truth … most college sports run in the red, costing universities millions of dollars. The rare exception is usually football and/or basketball.

A select share of Division I college athletes [emphasis added] produce billions of dollars of revenue every year for their schools. Almost all of this revenue comes from football and men’s basketball.

And yet, expenditures by college athletics departments are such that, with the exception of a small number of schools, athletic expenses surpass revenues at the overwhelming majority of Division I programs.

[3] With 11 players on the football field, A&M’s “12th Man” literally (in name) and figuratively (in activity) means an extra player for the team:

The 12th man or 12th player is a collective term for fans of sports teams in many eleven-a-side games …. [R]eferring to a team’s fans as the 12th man implies that they have a potentially helpful and significant role in the game.

[4] Student sections are used to sell tickets, sell to alumni, sell to recruits, and sell to prospective students … all moneymakers for a university. To participate, these students are required to buy their own tickets to the game (or they’re charged an athletic fee). Thus, they pay out of their own pocket for the privilege of being unpaid, revenue-generating labor.

[5] If you don’t want to talk payment, then let’s talk scholarships. If 37,000 students spend their time (not unlike athletes) helping A&M sell tickets, win games, look good on TV, and market the university, don’t they at least deserve a scholarship of some kind?

[6] Consider “The Baylor Line,” billed by the university as a “Tradition Like No Other.”

All new students represent this great tradition by wearing a football jersey with the number of their graduation year and a nickname on the back. Prior to each home football game, the Line gathers at the south end of McLane Stadium and, led by the cheers of alumni and fans, runs onto the field and created an enormous human tunnel to welcome the football team to McLane Stadium.

This long-running tradition — which separates Baylor from other universities (i.e., a “Tradition Like No Other”) — is mostly student run. In terms of revenue, the tradition generates pride for alumni (which promotes giving), creates a spectacle for fans (which sells tickets), tethers current students to the university (which increases retention), and offers high school students a future amenity (which increases enrollment).

[7] Beyond tickets, professional fans also provide revenue via merchandising. But here, I’m taking about fans and their role in the gameday experience.

[8] When talking pay-for-play, most conversations center on Power 5 football and its enormous revenue. If we extend the conversation to non-revenue sports, student fans (and the other student contributors) are ever more important. These sports are supported less by the paying “fan” and more by their fellow students, including cheerleaders, mascots, band members, and student sections.

Moreover, when non-revenue sports enter the pay-for-play conversation, this further supports paying non-athletic students. If non-revenue athletes don’t earn a profit, then there’s no direct reason to pay them. However, indirect reasons — recruitment, branding, publicity, school pride — come into play as justifications for payment. The same justifications apply to student fans, band members, cheerleaders, and mascots.

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Travis Burchart

Social media expert, higher education advocate, writer, Founding Fathers fan, lawyer in a past life