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College Athletes Should Get Paid Whether They Want the Money or Not

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston said he's fine with getting paid in "free education," but what he says doesn't matter.
Photo by Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

In all likelihood, Jameis Winston will make more money in his lifetime than you or I will ever see. The 20-year-old Florida State student won the Heisman last year while leading the Seminoles to a BCS championship by dramatically driving down the field and throwing a touchdown pass against Auburn with seconds remaining on the clock. Barring injury or him suddenly forgetting how to throw a football, he'll be one of the top picks of the next NFL draft provided he doesn't decide to stay in school to get a degree—or play professional baseball, because Winston is such a freakish athlete he could be a top MLB prospect if he decided to stop playing football.


Should college athletes be paid? Christ why is that even still a question? Read more.

Winston was at ACC Media Days on Sunday, because when you are talented and famous and have the riches of high-level professional sports awaiting you, you get put up on a stage and asked questions by strangers who then disseminate your answers far and wide. The quarterback said the Right Things, like that he "was always raised as a student first and an athlete second," and that his education was hugely important to him. "Some athletes lose that perspective," he said. "It's about being a student-athlete, and not just getting that easy money and going to the league. Even if kids leave early, I would want them to come back and get that degree."

While the men who run the NCAA presumably doodled hearts around Winston's name in their spiral notebook, he responded to a question about whether talented young men who make piles of money for their colleges receive something on top of their scholarships:

Jameis Winston asked abt college athletes being paid: "We're blessed to get a free education.. And that's enough for me." #fsu

— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) July 20, 2014

Winston is 20 years old and, as his post-championship sideline interview illustrates, has an almost corny amount of pride in his team, his school, his country, and God. It's natural enough that he would say that he doesn't want to get paid, mister, he values his education, he's simply overjoyed to wake up one morning with the arm he took out a $10 million insurance policy on and go out there and compete for the Florida State fans and coaches, and he's not even thinking about how his university and the NCAA are swimming in money thanks to their selling of the TV rights to his games.


But it doesn't matter what he says. It wouldn't matter if all the big-time college quarterbacks got together and signed a letter that said, "Hey we don't care about the money, cash in on our likenesses all you want—we're here for the free education, which you can't put a price tag on. Haha jk about that last part, only Jameis thinks that, we're just stopping over on our way to the NFL. Anyway, no money for us, thanks." The uber-talented kids like Jameis who pass through the NCAA on their way to a fat NFL contract and a set of endorsement deals might be justified in not caring about whether they're exploited—they're getting paid in a couple years either way, and they might get a bad reputation if they start talking about labor's relation to capital in public—but their fellow athletes are getting screwed.

The system needs to be reformed for guys like Jake McDonough, a former All-Big 12 lineman who went undrafted and will likely never make Jameis Winston money but risked his body out on the field and was living month-to-month off of it. "You might say that our school is paid for, which I am very thankful for, but you can't really budget anything other than rent into your scholarship check," McDonough wrote for VICE Sports this month. "It feels as though we were forced into poverty." It needs to be reformed for the players less successful than McDonough, the ones who won't see a dime from the NFL and have nothing tangible to show for their years of bone-wrecking devotion to their teams. The ones who graduate have a degree without any debt—but that's hardly a guarantee of financial stability, as any recent college grad will tell you, unless they majored in something difficult but practical like computer or chemical engineering. And how many college football players have the time or the inclination for those kinds of classes?

Pending a ruling in the landmark Ed O'Bannon trial, these athletes can't even make money off their own likenesses—unlike their coaches, who can sometimes earn hundreds of thousands of dollars for product endorsement deals. Big-time college sports programs have enough money to pay those coaches millions and build obscenely lavish facilities, but NCAA president Mark Emmert claimed during the trial that giving some of the wealth to the athletes who make all that possible would destroy the precious preserve of amateurism that is collegiate athletics. At this point, the hypocrisy is so glaring, and has been pointed out by so many people, that only a few fresh-faced babes in the woods like Winston (who, remember, won't have to worry about money in the foreseeable future) can talk with a straight face about the importance of that "free" education student-athletes play a dangerous sport in order to earn.

One of the funny things about capitalism is that some people will do some jobs for free: interns who will fetch coffee at a fancy magazine to gain experience and network, apprentices who will work under a master craftsman to learn a trade, aspiring artists who will give their stuff away until someone offers to pay them. There's a whole set of laws designed to prevent people from being exploited by their own desperation, to make sure that businesses have to compensate their employees, even if they exist in a glamorous industry that has young people lining up to be abused for the sake of their future careers. As Winston's media day answers show, college football is obviously one of those industries, but it's so far been immune to those labor laws. Hopefully, it won't be for long.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.