By Ken Reed

Very few NCAA athletes understand and appreciate the economic power they possess as a collective group. Donald H. Yee, a sports lawyer whose firm represents Tom Brady among others, wrote an excellent piece for the Washington Post a couple days ago about how college athletes, especially minority athletes in the football and basketball programs at major universities, are being exploited by the NCAA and its member schools.

As Yee eloquently points out, big-time college football and men’s basketball players are responsible for generating billions of dollars. Yet, the compensation they receive is capped by the NCAA at tuition, room and board (and in some cases, a small full cost of attendance stipend). In terms of dollars paid for value created, no group of employees in the country is getting a worse deal than college football and basketball players in the Power Five conferences.

You don’t think so? Consider some of these numbers:

“The College Football Playoff will generate more than $7 billion from ESPN over a 12-year contract,” pointed out Yee. “Basketball’s March Madness will bring in nearly $11 billion from CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting over a 14-year TV and Web deal. Merchandising and licensing revenue reportedly exceeds $4 billion a year.” The college football championship game features Clemson from the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and Alabama from the Southeastern Confernce (SEC). Each conference will get $6 million for having a team selected for the four-team College Football Playoff.

The fact is, college sports revenue is skyrocketing in recent years. From 2008 to 2013, the average revenue of a big-time Division I program increased by 32 percent. During the same timeframe, median household income in America went down by 1.3 percent.

According to a study by the Drexel University Sports Management Department and the National College Players Association, football and men’s basketball players at top sports schools were denied at least $6.2 billion between 2011 and 2015 under NCAA rules that prohibit them from being paid. The fair market value of a football player at the University of Texas during the 2011-12 school year was $567,922 on an annual basis, according to Ellen Staurowsky, a professor at Drexel University. The calculation was based on an NFL-like shared revenue system. The value of a “full-ride” athletic scholarship at Texas was $21,090 a year at the time of her study. As such, the fair market value denied (the difference between the fair market value and the value of the scholarship) was $546, 832.

How can this economic injustice be changed? Well, the NCAA isn’t going to do it. They like keeping the cash for themselves. Coaches like Alabama’s Nick Saban aren’t going to do it. They enjoy their huge salaries too much. (Saban makes more than $7 million per year.) The networks, like ESPN, certainly aren’t going to push for it.

The players are going to have to do it themselves. The problem is, the players don’t have a union or anyone else representing them, like the players in the NFL, NBA and MLB do. Creating a union will be a struggle, as Northwestern football players discovered. But formally or informally, the players need to unite for change, like Missouri’s football players did earlier this year by threatening to boycott all football activities over racial issues on Mizzou’s campus unless the school president, Tim Wolfe, was fired or resigned. The threat spooked TV network executives and others who didn’t want to deal with the economic ramifications of a scheduled football game being cancelled due to a player protest. As such, a ton of pressure came down on Wolfe to resign, which he did.

Whether you believe the Missouri outcome was just or not, the point is it shows how much power college athletes can wield when they come together and stand up for a cause.

Imagine how much positive change could result for college football and basketball players if Clemson’s and Alabama’s players had united around a “we’re not playing the championship game until we get some economic justice” platform?

As former University of California and NFL linebacker Scott Fujita told Yee:

“The current model will only be ‘broken’ for as long as the athletes themselves allow it to remain that way. There’s no governing body that’s going to fix it. It must be the players. And as more players realize the power they can wield, and once they can organize around the common purpose of the change they seek, that’s when things will begin to shift.”

And the shift will be dramatic.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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