By Ken Reed
The Huffington Post
March 24, 2017
I prefer watching college football and basketball rather than the pro versions of both sports.
I also like the concept of “student-athlete.” I really do. There’s a romantic quality to the idea of young people playing for the love of the game and school pride instead of a paycheck.
I love the whole atmosphere of college sports better than what you get with the pro game. I enjoy seeing students cheering wildly in the stands for their classmates on the floor. I love it when bands strike up the school fight song, and cheerleaders do their routines while wearing school colors. And I like the idea of coaches as teachers – of the game and life.
To me, the whole education model of college sports really is an appealing concept. In a lot of ways I’m an idealist. Fortunately, it still exists at the Division III level, and most of the time at the Division II level. But let’s get real here. At the highest-level of college sports, this model is a fantasy. Pure fantasy.
In the power conferences (Big Ten, ACC, Big 12, Pac-12, and Big East in basketball), there are more similarities with the NFL and NBA than there are with NCAA Division III programs.
Of course, there’s one big difference between the pros and big-time college sports: player compensation. In the pros, the producers of the product, the athletes, are making hundreds of thousands of dollars, and in a lot of cases, millions of dollars, for their efforts. On the other hand, college athletes get a free spot in school classrooms for four or five years, along with room and board.
What’s that you say? Full scholarships can be worth more than $200,000 over four years? True indeed. And that’s nothing to scoff at. But that’s still far from the athletes’ true market value.
Consider that the NCAA and its member schools pull in over a billion dollars – billion, not million — for the television rights for the men’s NCAA basketball tournament alone. Millions more in media rights pour in for regular season football and basketball games. Then there’s bowl game and college football playoff revenue.
Power conference football and men’s basketball coaches regularly make well over $2 million a year in salary. Top coaches like Alabama’s Nick Saban and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer make more than $5 million a year. Athletic directors make a half million a year or more. Executives and broadcasters at ESPN and the other networks involved in college sports draw huge paychecks. Universities as a whole benefit from the millions of dollars of free publicity big-time sports on campus generate.
It seems the NCAA goose that lays the golden eggs is making everyone rich except the athletes themselves. That’s right, the very people responsible for creating the NCAA product are left out.
According to a study by the National College Players Association (NCPA) and the Drexel University Sport Management Department, football and men’s basketball players at top sports schools were denied at least $6.2 billion in fair market value between 2011 and 2015 under NCAA athlete compensation rules.
Moreover, that $200,000 scholarship over four years doesn’t really cost the athletic department $200,000. Colleges can simply put a few more desks in college classrooms and tell athletes to come on in. Because college sports are considered non-profit educational entities by our government (wink, wink), a lot of funny-money accounting can take place on college campuses. Transfer-price accounting allows colleges to call their college football and men’s basketball programs non-profits, put fake prices on things like an athletic scholarship, and move money around the campus to make it look like highly profitable ventures (read: football and men’s basketball programs) are actually not making any money at all.
Here’s the deal: In practice, the NCAA is nothing more than a cartel because it collectively limits compensation to workers.
“Price-fixed compensation via school collusion — whether you like the system today or not, that’s the system,” says journalist Patrick Hruby. “And it wouldn’t survive in any other industry in America.”
No matter how much we enjoy watching big-time college football and basketball games as fans, if we’re honest, we have to face the fact that we’re dealing with an economic injustice and civil rights issue here.
“The governance of college sports is a civil rights issue because the athletes are citizens and are being denied their rights by what amounts to collusion,” according to well-known civil rights historian Taylor Branch.
“Colleges are telling football and basketball players they can’t get anything above a college scholarship. The athletes are being conned out of their rights. College athletes are both athletes and students. They have every right to seek pay as athletes.”
But therein lies the challenge for college athletes. How do they go about seeking a fair compensation system? They aren’t collectively organized in a union like their pro football and basketball counterparts. Their college careers are short (four years, five years if they redshirt). They are spread all over the country.
It’s a tough situation but college athletes do have leverage. Consider the case of the Missouri football team in 2015. The team refused to play an upcoming game in protest of what they saw as the school administration’s lack of response in the face of several on-campus incidents of racism. In about a week’s time, school leaders caved to the demands of the players. The school president was pushed out. Whether you agree with the players’ actions in the Mizzou case or not, the point is big-time college athletes do indeed have clout.
That said, consider the leverage players on this year’s Final Four teams could have if they threatened to boycott playing in the upcoming Final Four? If one of the four teams as a whole boycotted, or a few star players from each team said, “We’re not playing,” television executives would freak out. Major sponsors would be up in arms.
For sure, it would take a group of courageous athletes to threaten to sit out what is likely the biggest opportunity of their lives, playing on national television in the Final Four. Some of them won’t get the chance to play professionally. Playing in the Final Four might be their “one shining moment.” It would be an incredibly selfless act to boycott this year’s Final Four in order to increase the chances future college athletes will be treated more justly.
Nevertheless, in all likelihood, it would probably never have to get to the actual boycott stage. If a group of Final Four athletes held a press conference on the Monday of Final Four week and said they weren’t going to play in that week’s games until a well-defined process was established to bring players to the decision-making table on the matter of athlete compensation, things would happen quickly. Media outlets would be all over the story. Sponsors and television executives would immediately pressure NCAA executives and college presidents to “get something done.”
And if nothing else, millions of fans would become much more aware of the economic injustice situation in big-time college sports today.
Folks, this is the civil rights issue of our time.
A scholarship is nice but it certainly isn’t fair.
Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans.
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League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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