By Ken Reed

Not only don’t college athletes get to share in the soaring revenues their blood, sweat and tears generates, they basically have no say in policy matters that impact their health, safety and daily lives.

First, let’s be clear here. We’re talking about big-time college athletics, most notably athletics in the Power Five conferences, not Division III college athletics. Big-time college athletics are are a huge sports and entertainment enterprise. Division III athletics is about real students looking to enhance their undergraduate educations by participating in varsity athletics.

In a well-done portrayal of the current situation in major college sports, Dan Wexels of Yahoo! Sports lays bare the current situation at college sports factories like Michigan.

“In 2011, the University of Michigan athletic department employed 253 people, according to state records,” wrote Wexels.

“Four years later, in 2015, it was 334, up 32 percent. During that period, the average salary grew 22.4 percent, to $89,851. Over a seven-year span, the number of athletic department employees making six figures went from 30 to 81.”

It’s the National Collegiate Industrial Complex, as Wexels calls it.

As a non-profit (what a joke that is!), the Michigan athletic department had to do some creative accounting to make the balance sheet work out. Thanks primarily to soaring media revenue streams, Michigan athletic administrators had way too much revenue to account for. So, they spent the money on more coaches and administrators, raises for coaches and administrators, office upgrades for staff, and more unnecessary equipment and facility upgrades to keep up with the Joneses in the big-time college sports arms race. There’s also more dollars going to marketing and recruiting efforts.

Michigan certainly isn’t alone.

“According to the Macon Telegraph, the University of Georgia paid the entertainer Ludacris $65,000 to perform for 15 minutes prior to this year’s spring football game,” pointed out Wexels. “It was probably cool that Ludacris was there for 15 minutes. Funding a couple more scholarships might have been cooler.”

The athletes have no say in all of this. Yes, some college student-athletes serve on NCAA committees, or on athletics committees on their campuses, but those roles are largely symbolic, done for PR purposes, not as a way for athletes to actually have any real policy-making clout.

“The stories of spring 2016 in college sports have revolved around two things: all that additional money and more rulings and decisions that treat the players with little respect,” writes Wexels.

Student-athletes get little respect because they have no representation in dealing with the powerbrokers at the NCAA, or in the corner offices in athletic administration buildings on college campuses. Kain Colter tried to create a players’ union to address player concerns at Northwestern but his efforts ultimately ran into a variety of roadblocks, including a comprehensive defense by the NCAA, and nothing changed.

“The NCAA is vehemently opposed to paying the players or even allowing them to profit off their own image and likeness (It’s worked well for the Olympics.),” writes Wexels. “Doing so might chip into the revenue coming in, after all.”

College athletes sorely need formalized representation. This representation can be in the form of a players’ union or another model. Revenue distribution is certainly one issue that should be on the table, but so are player safety issues (e.g., college concussion protocols are much weaker than those in professional sports leagues), academic balance concerns (e.g., should weekday basketball games really be starting at 9pm?) and other topics concerning athletes’ welfare.

Or, schools could hire more assistant athletic directors and additional coaches for the football and basketball teams.

Or, gulp, maybe book Ludacris for more 15-minute gigs at spring football games, at $65,000 a pop.

Everything in big-time college sports is done in the name of advancing the quality of higher learning, right?

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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