In June, the New York Times reported on the case of Wes Lunt. After playing quarterback at Oklahoma State University for a year, he was looking to transfer to another school. OSU thanked him for his service and then—in an increasingly common move permitted under the agreement signed by incoming athletes—forbade him from transferring his scholarship to about 40 competing universities.
“It was a powerful illustration of the big-business mind-set of college sports,” reporter Greg Bishop wrote.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association is technically a non-profit organization, justifying its tax-exempt status with the notion that it promotes education by way of athletics.
But a growing number of voices in the sporting world are beginning to argue that the NCAA puts profit before education, at least in big profit sports like football and basketball. And in the process, college athletes (like Americans in so many other, less prestigious sectors of the economy) are getting a raw deal.
Pro work, amateur profits
Here is the central paradox of American college sports: It’s a multibillion-dollar entertainment spectacle, but the people who make it all possible—the athletes—don’t get any of the profits.
To resolve the contradiction, the NCAA has for decades relied upon the notion of the student-athlete. The idea is that college athletes aren’t professionals, but rather young people playing a sport as one of the myriad activities available on a college campus designed to cultivate all-around personal growth; “the Athenian concept of a complete education derived from fostering the full growth of both mind and body,” according to a federal judge quoted in Taylor Branch’s must-read investigation “The Shame of College Sports.” For their time and effort, student-athletes are compensated not in cash, but in scholarships that make their education possible.
But critics argue that, in practice, there is hardly a healthy balance between “student” and “athlete.”
“Ask a player what would happen if they didn’t show up to a workout or game, even if they were attending class,” said Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, a non-profit that advocates for college players. “They would lose their scholarship.”
Indeed, the demanding schedule of college athletes at premier athletic universities casts doubt on the notion that they are amateur athletes and not professionals.
“They don’t just have an hour worth of practice after classes,” said Mychal Denzel Smith, a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute. “They have two-a-days and three-a-days and what have you. They’re out there and they’re constantly working out, they’re constantly reading playbooks and watching film.”
If “student-athlete” isn’t a fitting description for today’s college players, then what are they? Many have centered on the notion that they are workers just like pro players, professionals whose craft is sport.
“They are treated as professionals but not compensated that way,” Smith told Campus Progress.
In fact, athlete compensation seems like the only part of the enterprise that isn’t run like a business. Tickets to games are expensive and rise by the year; the NCAA’s television contracts are worth billions; most coaches of major programs (and even a few assistant coaches) are paid well into seven figures; and corporate logos brand athletes’ uniforms and use their likenesses to sell everything from jerseys to video games.
It’s an injustice regardless of your economic persuasion. There’s the Marxist case: Young football and basketball prodigies are alienated and exploited workers, lacking ownership of the fruits of their labor and deprived of the surplus created by their work. And then there’s the free market case: The NCAA operates like a cartel, preventing supply and demand from establishing a true market price for players’ talents.
Either way, many college athletes are not being fully compensated for the value they bring to their universities.
Health (and wealth) hazards for players
It’s not just that young players are losing out on a chance to get rich. Participation in college sports requires some sacrifices and very real risks.
Huma told Campus Progress that he was inspired to start the NCPA after he saw a teammate on UCLA’s football team accept a gift from a booster, which is illegal under NCAA rules.
The gift? Groceries. According to Huma, athletic scholarships don’t cover the full cost of daily life on a college campus, forcing players without outside income to resort to living without, taking on debt, or breaking the rules.
Huma chose to do without. “By the time [the teammate] was suspended, I had lost almost 15 pounds,” he told Campus Progress. “There just literally was not enough food available to maintain my weight.”
Or, a more drastic example: Playing college sports can have health consequences that last a lifetime. The issue came to a head in this year’s March Madness college basketball tournament when Louisville star Kevin Ware broke his leg during a game, his broken bone piecing his skin in front of a national television audience.
Sports editor at The Nation Dave Zirin pointed out that Louisville was quick to turn around $24.99 Adidas t-shirts heralding Ware’s resilience, but:
In accordance with their rules aimed at preserving the sanctity of amateurism, not one dime from these shirts will go to Kevin Ware or his family. Not one dime will go toward Kevin Ware’s medical bills if his rehab ends up beneath the $90,000 deductible necessary to access the NCAA’s catastrophic injury medical coverage. Not one dime will go towards rehab he may need later in life.
The high-profile nature of Ware’s case leads Huma to believe that Louisville will take care of his expenses—at least until he leaves the university. According to a New York Times article published shortly after Ware’s injury, college players typically shoulder the long-term burden of injuries on their own. And if an injured player is unable to heal enough to return to competitive play, their university is under no obligation to continue renew scholarship: From 2008 to 2009, 22 percent of all players at top basketball schools lost their scholarship.
For the vast majority of athletes who don’t go on to a pro career, the classroom time lost to sports can be highly costly. Only about half of college football and basketball players end up getting a degree, according to Huma, the NCPA president.
A way forward?
“The structure of college athletics really has not changed in sixty years. What has changed is the amount of money,” Zirin told Campus Progress. “And that creates a situation where the center does not hold. It’s very hard to sell players on the idea that they’re part of some sort of moral structure.”
The litany of scandals involving college players receiving payment or gifts in violation of NCAA rules is testimony to this breakdown of moral structure, according to Zirin.
Some efforts to change the status quo are underway. The NCPA claims 7,000 active members, and they are advocating for a set of reforms that would improve living situations, medical coverage, and educational opportunities for players. Meanwhile, former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon is suing the NCAA. He argues that he should be paid royalties for the products the NCAA sells using his likeness, and that all college athletes should be free to license themselves however they see fit.
And a growing chorus is calling for the players to be paid, from sports progressive Zirin to the football coaches of the heavyweight Southeastern Conference.
“There has to be a way for players to be able to get something of what they produce,” Zirin said. “They need to be treated like the campus employees that they are.”
Some might see that as a two-wrongs-don’t-make-a-right type of solution—using more money as the solution to money in college athletics, and conceding defeat to the commercialization of amateur sports.
But is America ready for, or do we even want, an expansion of amateurism and a restoration of the balance between “student” and “athlete”? Picture, say, a typical autumn Saturday in College Station, Texas, the home of the Texas A&M Aggies. How would sponsors, television networks, and the fervent throngs of fans handle it if Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel was unable to play because he had a midterm he had to study for?