Over the past 10 years College football and men’s basketball have become such huge commercial enterprises that together they generate north of $6 billion dollars in annual revenue (Riffle). On top of that, a top college coach can make as much or more than professional coaches. For example, Urban Meyer, the current head football coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes, was offered $24 million dollars over six years in 2011 (Gaines). Furthermore, other elite conferences such as the SEC and Pac 12 have also signed lucrative TV deals, while the Big 10 and the University of Texas have their own sports networks (Carter). Sponsors, such as Chick-fil-A and Coors, also throw big money at Division I schools in order to enhance their marketing campaigns and reach college students. March Madness is another big money maker for college sports and in 2011 Turner Broadcasting partnered with CBS to sign a 14-year $10.8 billion dollar deal for the national championship tournament (Carter). Ironically, the labor force behind the millions of dollars in college sports is the student athlete. Student athletes are supposed to be content with a scholarship that does not cover the full cost of attending college. The NCAA also rules in place that prevent athletes from taking hand outs like hamburgers, hot dogs, cheese fries, and money from alumni.
This glaring discrepancy between what football and basketball players get and what everyone else in their food chain gets has bred deep cynicism between athletes. First off, student athletes are not stupid and they look around and see jerseys with their names on them being sold in bookstores around campus. I even had the chance to play at lacrosse at a Division III school and the majority of athletics merchandise was centered on lacrosse and football. Furthermore, players, just like me, see a multitude of fans on Saturday afternoons rooting for them. In spite of that, athletes can end up putting 50 plus hours or more a week into sports, and they learn quickly not to take any courses or schedule any other extracurricular activities that could possibly interfere with film sessions, games, or practices.
Too put things into perspective, there are over 460,000 male and female athletes who participate in 23 sports across the United States (Gaines). These student athletes, namely Division I football players, have incredibly difficult schedules especially during the first week of practice in the August when they have to work out from 8:30am-10:30pm, or 14 hours a day (Isidore). That’s just the beginning; up until the season begins players are practicing a minimum of 50-60 hours per week and that does not include weekly film sessions or extra one on one meeting’s with coaches (Isidore). The workload trails off once classes begin and players have to practice a minimum of 40-50 hours per week. Once the regular season rolls around, weeks with road games usually include a 37-hour stretch that includes travel, practice, and the opportunity to sleep in a strange hotel (Isidore). Furthermore, the season is not short and it usually runs until late November, unless the team is good enough to make a bowl game. If the team does in fact make a bowl game, the team has to practice through New Years Day and they are not given a sufficient break for the holidays. Some schools, such as Ohio State, only give their athletes three days off for Christmas and they have to be back by 3pm on Christmas day. The players commitment does not end there, after the season ends players still have to spend more time on the field than most other students spend on a part time job. The players spend 12-15 hours a week weight training, 15-20 hours a week preparing for Spring football practice, and 20-25 hours a week of Spring and Summer practice (Isidore). All in all, despite the numerous hours of practice a week classes are still important in college, but classes that interfere with sports are another story entirely.
From personal experience, classes that interfere with practice or games can lead to detrimental punishment from coaches. For example, in my sophomore year at Oberlin one of teammates on the lacrosse team had a class between the hours of 4-6pm and more often than not he would be late to practice. The coaches weren’t pleased, to say the least, and they constantly made him to extra sprints after practice and move the nets off of the field. In spite of that, Oberlin continually preached that academic successes outweigh athletic ones. In other words, class always comes first no matter what the reason and a degree from college will open up many more opportunities than an athletic scholarship. Regardless of my stint in Division III athletics, Division I is a different beast entirely and players deserve to be treated as employees of the NCAA, not just amateur athletes.
The primary reason that Division I athletes are on campus is to play sports and win games for their respective schools. The NCAA can define the athletes as students but their real job is to bring money to the athletic department on Saturdays. Also, the NCAA often states that it is protecting athletes from “excessive commercialism,” which is a blatant lie. The NCAA is only protecting its revenue stream and it takes in nearly $800 million dollars a year from its March Madness contracts (Peebles). On top of that, “athletes that participate in football and basketball feel unfairly treated,” Leigh Steinberg, prominent sport agent, says. “The dominant attitude among players is that there is no moral or ethical reason not to take money, because the system is ripping them off” (Peebles). Simply put, college athletes generate millions of dollars for their perspective schools and they do not receive a dime of compensation for their work. Too put things into perspective, in the 2013-2014 season the NBA grossed $4.78 billion dollars in revenues (Gillsepie). On top of that, the average basketball player makes about $24.7 million dollars over his 4.8-year career (Gillespie). However, in 2013 the NCAA accumulated nearly $1.15 billion dollars in ad revenue, which is $200 million more than the NBA playoffs that same year (Peebles). Regardless, the tournament participants, namely the NCAA student athletes, did not receive a dime of compensation for their efforts. The University of Alabama, on the other hand, also generated an income of over $143 billion dollars in 2014 (Gillsepie). Their profit margin was greater than all NHL teams and 25 of 30 NBA teams and not a single one of its players received any money.
In other words, the NCAA system is broken and it is able to flourish when there is misconduct between coaches, players, and administrative assistants. There have been abuse scandals at numerous schools, most notably at the University of Miami. At Miami a booster was convicted of running a ponzi scheme, which provided dozens of players with money, cars, and sometimes prostitute and he is now in prison (Isidore). In spite of the disheartening actions of coaches and sometimes players there have been calls for change in the NCAA. A new breed of reformers believe the only way the NCAA can achieve any sort of integrity is to recognize that college basketball and football are big businesses similar to professional sports.
These reformers, namely the athletes themselves decided to take a chance and call out the NCAA and educational institutions for their actions in 2014. In their movement, the Northwestern athletes sent a petition to the National Labor Board of Chicago and they were given an opportunity to unionize. In other words, the player’s petition was a way for college athletes to get a seat at the bargaining table of the NCAA, where all the big money is spent and organized. In spite of the players proposed revolution to get paid, Northwestern has fought the petition with force and went as far as calling the player’s students, not student athletes (Isidore). Regardless of the schools statement the National Labor Boards decision indicates that there was enough evidence to qualify athletes as employees of the university. The athletes were getting paid in the form of scholarships, working between 20 and 50 hours a week, and generating millions of dollars for their perspective schools (Isidore). The athletes have stated that they are looking for better health care, concussion testing, four-year scholarships, and the possibility of receiving some sort of compensation for bringing in millions of dollars on Saturdays and Sundays. Northwestern and the NCAA, on the other hand, want the students focused on what matters most, doing well in school. According to NCAA records, only 2% of all college athletes reach the professional and those that do have a short career, under four years as a professional, although they make millions of dollars a year (Gillsepie). Also if the players won their perspective fight, other schools such as Duke and Stanford would be forced to abandon the Division I model of sports entirely and focus on academics. The Ivies, on the other hand, had some of the highest ranked sports teams in the 1950s but they abandoned the Division I model of college sports (Isidore). The Ivies decided that they were not going to move forward like other big name schools and maintain the academic integrity that they are known for today. As a result of that the Ivies average a measly 10,000 fans per game compared to other big name schools, such as Ohio State, which averages north of 70,000 per home game (Riffle). In spite of changing cultures of Division I schools, such as the Ivies, athletes still deserve to get paid and there are other avenues to achieve that.
This past summer the NCAA finally allowed for Division I student athletes to be rewarded with cash stipends to cover,” late-night snacks, student fees, laundry money and movies” (Isidore). Regardless, most Division I athletes are under scholarships from their perspective schools, which covers the core expenses of room and board. The stipends are supposed to cover the cost between scholarship money and what it really costs to attend school. The stipends are not extraneous amounts of money; they only range from $2,000 to $5,000 dollars per year and according to CNN Money they are offered at the majority of Division I schools across the country (Isidore). The new stipend is a step in the right direction for student athletes that come from poor families but it is not enough to make serious dent in the culture of college sports. Also, the stipends are only for athletes that participate in revenue sports, such as basketball and football (Isidore). Other student athletes who participate in non-revenue generating lacrosse, volleyball, and soccer do not have any avenues to receive any money but there are other ways to pay athletes, such as a salary cap system.
Each Division I school would have a certain salary cap, just like professional sports do, but it will be significantly smaller. In basketball, the salary cap would be $750,000 dollars and football would be $4 million. It is not unbelievable to think that college programs could afford this as Jim Harbaugh made north of $7 million dollars this season (Nocera). There would also be a minimum salary for players, nothing lower than $25,000 dollars per season (Nocera). The players obviously wouldn’t be rolling up to school in fancy cars but they would have the ability to enjoy college and not have to worry about finances. Only half of the salary cap will be used on players, especially in football, the rest would be for recruitment (Nocera). For example, if two colleges were jockeying for a player one could offer more than another. The choice, for the athlete, would not be made of the school itself but the money offered by each one. The money might also encourage athletes to stay in school for 3-4 years and finish out their education. Regardless, in order have a salary cap their needs to be a union that represents the athletes, similar to what Northwestern was trying to achieve. It just so happens that the National College Players Association already exists and they would negotiate with the NCAA to create the minimum salary cap, TV deals, and marketing revenues (Nocera). The athlete’s scholarships would also cover up to six years of college so that they would have an opportunity to finish out school after they are done playing their respective sport (Nocera). What does this mean for non-revenue producing sports? Well athletes in these respective sports such as soccer and lacrosse would have a smaller salary cap then football but they would still be able to receive money.
The salary cap is a positive move for Division I college sports and it will open up many opportunities for athletes in and out of sports. The longer scholarship will allow athletes to finish school and receive a degree and they will be able to enjoy college while doing it. Paying athletes is the correct move for college athletics and it needs to be implemented as soon as possible.