Shades of 48: What if William & Mary paid its athletes?

Shades of 48 is a William and Mary sports blog started by current Flat Hat Online editor and former Sports editor Jared Foretek along with former Sports editor and Editor-in-chief Mike Barnes ’13. In conjunction with Shades of 48, The Flat Hat will be republishing the blog’s work here. 

Written by Mike Barnes

On Tuesday morning, far beyond the brick-laden sidewalks of William & Mary, the rumblings of an earthquake stirred the suburbs of Chicago.

By the end of the day, the news had rocked the collegiate athletics landscape. A few intrepid Northwestern University students caused a veritable national stir earlier this week by filing for the right to unionize, reopening the on-again, off-again national discussion concerning the rights of college athletes.

According to various talking heads and prognosticators, Northwestern’s football players’ quest for unionization could result in a much more impactful (and controversial) change: Schools could begin paying their athletes. 1

While the debates rage across the country, we’d like to play the ever-interesting (and sometimes) dangerous game of “What if?” and turn the focus away from Northeastern and back to the quaint confines of Williamsburg. What if William & Mary started paying its athletes, and moreover, would it be a good idea?

Before we dive right in, let’s set one very important ground rule: We’re not even going to discuss how William & Mary could pay its athletes because, quite honestly, we have no idea how they would.

The athletic department isn’t hemorrhaging cash, but isn’t printing money either, and I doubt that if the landscape of collegiate athletics suddenly changed tomorrow that the College would be in a position to start doling out paychecks. So, for the purposes of this discussion, let’s ignore the whole question of procuring the money, and instead just focus on whether William & Mary paying its student athletes is a good idea.

Let’s start with one fact: the idea of paying William & Mary athletes would create an enormous stir amongst the Williamsburg community and the student body.

William & Mary students are intelligent, passionate, and for the most part, very progressive, but in my opinion, there wouldn’t be much student support for paying athletes. Now, let me dispel a popular misconception of William & Mary students: They don’t hate sports, and they don’t hate athletes.

You never see any blatant “anti-sports” propaganda (outside of the occasional grumblings about the ‘Student Athletic Fee’ that is included as a part of tuition) and there is no “geeks vs. jocks” mentality.

Instead, William & Mary students have a much more passive attitude about sports and their student-athlete peers: they’re just simply uninterested in sports. William & Mary (as many of us know), is not Ohio State. Football games aren’t the focal point of social interaction — Swem Library is. Your typical William & Mary student doesn’t hate football or basketball: they’re just more interested in fencing, 19th Century British novelists and making obscure literary references in conversation.

With the exception of a select few (student athletes and Tribal Fever), your typical College student doesn’t see William & Mary as a sports organization that also offers academics (looking at you, SEC schools). To them, its a world-class academic institution that also offers athletics. (And it is.)

In this spirit, I think they would oppose any large-scale change that would take money away from academics. I don’t think that students are anti-athletics, but they know that money is a finite  resource (especially at a publicly funded liberal arts college with a shortage of donors) and would raise their eyebrows at the idea that athletes should be paid.

You can call William & Mary students a lot of things, but ignorant is not one of them. You could visit a lot of campuses, and you’ll have trouble finding a more caring, understanding (and helplessly quirky) student body. But on the issue of collegiate athletics, they’re simply misinformed.

I’d bet you money that your typical William & Mary student has no idea how difficult it is to be a student athlete at William & Mary.2

There’s a reason William & Mary has a tough time competing at football and (especially) basketball: This school is unwilling to compromise academics for athletics. If you’re going to play ball in Williamsburg, you’ve got to get accepted into William & Mary on your own merit. Coaches will always be able to pull a few strings here and there, but for the most part, you can’t get into W&M without good grades, no matter who you are.

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