By Ken Reed
A few weeks back, Duke’s star basketball player, Zion Williamson, blew out his Nike sneaker — and sprained his knee in the process — in a game against his school’s archrival, the University of North Carolina.
At the time, there were fears that Williamson had suffered a serious injury, one that might negatively impact his NBA future and livelihood. Fortunately, Williamson recovered and is now starring in the NCAA tournament. Nevertheless, the high profile shoe malfunction stirred the debate once again regarding what is fair compensation for college athletes who bring in millions of dollars to their schools.
Should Williamson be happy with his college scholarship? Or should he be compensated closer to his market worth?
Why don’t we just finally accept the fact that big-time college sports are a reality? College sports, at the highest level, are a huge entertainment industry. One only needs to watch the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, or read about the latest billion-dollar media rights deal for a college athletic conference, to realize that we’re not simply talking about extracurricular sporting activities for students here.
As such, any serious college-sports-reform effort must address the prevailing economic injustice.
The hypocrisy in college athletics today is the result of an untenable system that promotes the amateur myth and tries to suppress the fact that the young athletes that fill the seats at football stadiums and basketball arenas on our college campuses have significant market value.
“The plight of college athletes is definitely a civil rights issue,” says civil rights historian and author Taylor Branch.
“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. 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. We need modern abolitionists to fight this unjust and unstable system.”
Some folks are trying to do just that.
Nancy Skinner, Democrat majority whip of the California state Senate has introduced Senate Bill 206, also known as the Fair Pay to Play Act, in the California State Legislature. Under SB 206, college athletes would be allowed to receive compensation in a way that’s similar to what Olympic athletes can receive. In other words, college athletes would be allowed to benefit from use of their names, images and likenesses, like every other student at our colleges and universities (and basically, every other American for that matter). In essence, they would be allowed to ink corporate sponsorship and endorsement deals.
“The Williamson case highlights just how unfair the system is,” said Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association (NCPA). “Players are forced into a system in which they play for essentially no compensation, but they risk injury that could seriously impact their future.”
It doesn’t have to be this way.
“Is it so ignoble for a college athlete to make money off his her talent and fame?” asks sports and culture writer Patrick Hruby.
“Nobody in America has to deal with the restrictions on income that the NCAA imposes. Actors and musicians can go off to college, be on scholarship, and still make money off their talent. It’s morally wrong, and un-American, to prevent athletes from doing the same.”
Most of the focus of the “Should College Athletes Be Paid?” debate has centered around big-time college football and basketball players. But elite athletes in the so-called “minor” sports can be impacted too. Four-time gold medal winner Missy Franklin chose to swim for the Cal-Berkeley swim team instead of turning pro after her Olympic heroics. While at Cal she suffered back problems and never regained her top form. Because she was banned from taking a corporate sponsorship deal while at Cal she lost a lot of money that sponsors were willing to pay her at her peak.
Recently, in a mixed ruling, a federal judge, Claudia Wilken determined that amateurism rules barring payment beyond scholarships and basic costs of education violate antitrust law. However, elsewhere in her ruling, she wrote that while NCAA athletes should be allowed to receive more compensation, it should be limited to benefits “related to education,” e.g., postgraduate scholarships, tutoring, study abroad, etc.
Admittedly, developing a system in which athletes are put on a university’s payroll (and all that would likely entail, e.g., worker’s compensation, player unions, Title IX ramifications, etc.) would be a complex endeavor. But allowing athletes to be paid by a sponsor to appear in an ad campaign, or simply to be paid to sign autographs at a local auto dealer for a couple hours, is pretty straightforward.
Why does this whole issue have to be so complicated? The Olympic model is the quickest and easiest way to more fairly compensate college athletes. It’s not the complete solution but it’s a great start.
The Olympics dumped the amateur myth and allowed athletes to make money from their athletic ability and fame. And guess what? The world didn’t end! In fact, the Olympics are more popular than ever.
The NCAA’s antiquated amateurism model is dying, but it’s a very slow death. Adopting the Olympic model would allow the college sports system to spin more quickly toward economic justice.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #30 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The State of College Athletics with Dr. David Ridpath: Problems and Potential Solutions – Ridpath is a sports administration professor at Ohio University and a long-time member of The Drake Group, a college sports reform think tank.
Follow on Facebook: @SportsForumPodcast
Episode #29 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The Honorable Tom McMillen Visits League of Fans’ Sports Forum – McMillen is a former All-American basketball player, Olympian, Rhodes Scholar and U.S. Congressman. We discuss the state of college athletics today.
Episode #28 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Chat With Mano Watsa, a Leading Basketball and Life Educator – Watsa is President of PGC Basketball, the largest education basketball camp in the world. We discuss problems in youth sports today.
Episode #27 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Kids’ Sports: How We Can Take Back the Game and Restore Quality Family Time In the Process – Linda Flanagan is author of “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports and Why It Matters.” We discuss how commercialized and professionalized youth sports are hurting kids and their families.
Episode #26 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: How Can We Fix Youth Sports? – John O’Sullivan is Founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project and author of “Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids.”
Episode #25 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Physical Education Should Be a Critical Component of K-12 School Design – Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.
Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- Reed Appears on Ralph Nader Radio Hour League of Fans’ sports policy director, Ken Reed, Ralph Nader and the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner discussed a variety of sports issues on Nader’s radio show as well as Reed’s updated book, How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan. Reed's book was released in paperback in February, and has a new introduction and several updated sections.
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.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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