This opinion piece was originally published in the student-run Daily Targum at Rutgers University.
For many years, the pay-for-play issue in major college sports was a no-brainer to me. A full-ride scholarship—a free education—is an invaluable experience. A college degree is something so many bright Americans struggle to afford, let alone attain. So the idea of athletes getting any kind of compensation beyond a free opportunity to pursue a degree was silly to me.
Not long after coming to Rutgers, I started to realize that student athletes are in a situation the rest of us cannot truly relate to. Universities recruit them to operate within the NCAA—a fully commercialized, multi-billion dollar industry that regulates players to the point of exploitation.
All television revenue, ticket and jersey sales, likeness promotions and other sources of income go to the NCAA, the schools, the coaches, the event staffs and everyone else involved in the business—except for the athletes creating the value. Last year, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament generated $1.15 billion in television ads, well beyond the revenue generated by the NFL and NBA playoffs, according to ESPN.
Despite devoting forty to sixty hours per week to their sport most of the year—more than many full-time jobs—Division I football players aren’t considered employees and lack basic economic rights under the NCAA’s cartel restrictions. That’s what former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter is pushing to change in his fight for unionization of the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA). He wants better medical insurance and academic support for players, and rightfully so.
The NCAA’s exploitative marketing comes in exchange for a scholarship incidental to the industry, and it requires far more time spent playing a major sport than studying for classes. Colter testified that advisors kept him from pursuing a dream of becoming a doctor in favor of easier classes to cater to his football schedule. That’s not putting someone in a position to succeed academically if they aren’t going professional athletically.
Yet somehow, universities paint a picture of student athletes being primarily students. They find it appropriate to use them as a vehicle for institutional promotion during sporting events that have nothing to do with education. The reality is, they care almost exclusively about a football player’s talent and marketability—nothing more, nothing less. The “student athlete” is a false concept.
The National Labor Relations Board’s decision last week to uphold CAPA’s petition carries few short-term ramifications, as the NLRB only affects private schools. But it’s beginning to expose the bigger fundamental issue here.
In response to the ruling, Northwestern appealed and wrote in a statement that it believes its student athletes “are not employees, but students.” That’s nonsense. Since when are money and education mutually exclusive?
There is no other student on scholarship at any university told they can’t be paid while receiving an education, and athletes collectively hauling in tons of money for their schools should be no different.
NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr found in his twenty-four-page ruling that Northwestern’s football team generated approximately $235 million in revenue from 2003 to 2012. A typical training camp day entails mandatory meetings, film sessions and practices from 6:30 am to 10:30 pm. Sorry, but that is a job, not an extra-curricular activity.
Imagine you’re an English scholar. You write a novel that becomes a best seller, but have to forfeit any profit to the school because you’re already taken care of with paid expenses. Or what if you’re a talented engineering student who builds something as innovative as Facebook in a dorm room, but couldn’t reap any benefits, because you were told the college experience is enough?
The NCAA tags student athletes with the label of “amateur,” but it’s more of an excuse to control the distribution of billions of dollars than an institutional ideal. The notion that college athletes should play strictly for the love of the game is laughable. If so, why give them a scholarship at all? Oh, right, schools need athletes enrolled for revenue and institutional advancement.
To be clear, student athletes do not need salaries or monthly paychecks, even though the NCAA runs just like any other professional sports league. They should simply be allowed to operate within the free market like anyone else in America. Schools can pay what they want, and athletes should be able to sign endorsements for their own likeness and image. It’s fairly simple.
There is no evidence to suggest that athletes being compensated a fairer market value would compromise an educational mission. Ivy League schools don’t award athletic scholarships, but that doesn’t mean their players love the game more than those in the Big Ten. And athletes in the Big Ten aren’t compromised academically by virtue of their scholarship.
Why would going beyond an arbitrarily capped number be any different?
The NCAA and misinformed fans have a myriad of excuses and unanswered questions, as if they are impossible to solve. There isn’t enough money. College athletics will crumble. Athletes already have it great as is. How much will everyone be paid?
None of those scare tactics is sufficient justification for restricting only one class of people in a booming industry that, oddly enough, has no problem making challenging business decisions with everyone else involved. Coaches and athletic directors can negotiate million-dollar contracts, billions are available for installing state-of-the-art facilities, but the whole enterprise hinges on maintaining an arbitrary benefit to the student athletes.
Please, that’s ridiculous. Billion-dollar industries don’t collapse when their employees receive more than their expenses.
Sometimes life isn’t fair, but the business the NCAA is conducting is unethical.