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.