As the confetti rained down on the victorious LSU Tigers football team, proud alumnus Odell Beckham Jr., now a wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns, handed out wads of cash to the beaming players. The players will have to give that money back, but their coach, university, and sponsors will pocket millions because of their victory. This was but the most recent example of the injustice of the NCAA’s insistence on amateurism, which claims the purity of having no money in the game while at the same time constructing a multibillion-dollar industry around college athletics. This massive business is built on the backs of athletes, the majority of whom are black, while the profits go to mostly white power brokers.
The racial dynamics of college athletics frame the injustice of the amateurism model. A 2017 study found that the majority of the athletes who play the highest revenue-generating sports, FBS-level football and men’s basketball, were black. Meanwhile, white people held 84 percent of college basketball and 91 percent of football coaching positions, while over 86 percent of football conference commissioners were white. Similar disparities exist higher up the chain, with athletic directors, conference commissioners, and university presidents.
This stark divide, between the majority-black athletes creating vast revenue for mostly white beneficiaries, lays bare the inequality of the NCAA’s policies. Despite their scholarships and small stipends, athletes often struggle to live comfortably at school. During the University of Connecticut's championship run in the men’s basketball tournament in 2014, Shabazz Napier told reporters “sometimes there's hungry nights where I’m not able to eat but I still have to play up to my capabilities.” Napier presents just one example of student-athletes struggling to fulfill all of the expectations that the collegiate athletics machine puts on their shoulders without providing the resources to fulfill them.
With fifty hours a week dedicated to their sports, athletes are often not able to get a campus job to cover expenses. They are provided a stipend, but often it is not sufficient, as Napier attests. The same issue exists in college football. At Clemson, for example, football players are given a stipend, $388 a month in 2017 for example, to meet the costs of attendance not covered in the scholarship. Many players, after using some for their expenses, send the money home to help their families. In 2017, Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel said “it’s not enough. I know beggars can’t be choosers, but it’s still not enough.”
Clemson’s head coach Dabo Swinney signed a 10 year, $92 million contract last year, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses for success in the playoffs. He gets rewarded for the work he does, while many of his players will not be.
Some have compared the amateurism model to slavery, wherein laborers, mostly black, create profits for their superiors, mostly white, that they will never see a piece of. For example, Kylia Carter, mother of then-UNC basketball player Wendell Carter Jr., explained that the NCAA model is “a system like the only system I have ever seen, where the laborers are the only people that are not being compensated for the work they do, while those in charge receive mighty compensation. The only two systems that I’ve known that to be in place is slavery, and the prison system. And now I see the NCAA as a system that is identical for that.”
Taylor Branch, a historian who studied the history of the NCAA’s exploitation of athletes, wrote that the NCAA’s clinging to amateurism “echoes masters who once claimed that heavenly salvation would outweigh earthly injustice to slaves. In the era when our college sports first arose, colonial powers were turning the whole world upside down to define their own interests as all-inclusive and benevolent. Just so, the NCAA calls it heinous exploitation to pay college athletes a fair portion of what they earn.” Walter Byers, who built up the commercial enterprise that is the modern NCAA, came to regret the injustice of the system he constructed. He wrote in his memoir that the NCAA’s treatment of athletes is “the plantation mentality resurrected and blessed by today’s campus executives.”
The myriad ways in which the NCAA takes advantage of student-athletes all compound this unequal framework, as each element of exploitation disproportionately disadvantages black athletes while enriching white beneficiaries.
The ethos of the NCAA centers around the sanctity of the student-athlete, with an emphasis on an even split between the two roles. With access to a prestigious education and the ability to play professionally later on, why should college athletes be compensated further? Add money to the mix, and the purity of college sports gets corrupted. But the financial incentives of the NCAA and schools demand that players prioritize their sport over everything else, including their education. Allowing athletes to profit off their work—through endorsement and licensing deals at the very least—would actually fit the model of what the NCAA has become, not violate it.
The NCAA’s inability to ensure that college athletes receive a quality education undermines their central claim about the value of amateurism. The NCAA argues that “maintaining amateurism is crucial to preserving an academic environment in which acquiring a quality education is the first priority.” But athletes’ experiences reveal that they are forced to put their sport, not their learning, first. In a 2014 case arguing for the unionization of the Northwestern football team, quarterback Kain Colter described the effect of the fifty hours per week commitment required for his sport, saying “it makes it hard for you to succeed. You can’t ever reach your academic potential with the time demands. You have to sacrifice, and we’re not allowed to sacrifice football.”
A 2015 study of over four hundred Pac-12 athletes across a number of sports told a similar story. A majority of athletes said that their sport interfered with their ability to succeed academically, affecting their ability to attend class, study for exams, and even get the amount of sleep they need to perform well in the classroom and on the field. The time demand left them “too exhausted to study effectively.” If the NCAA really was interested in ensuring student-athletes’ academics come first, they would address this issue.
Schools also often conspire to decrease the worth of athletes’ educations by funneling them into easier classes so they can focus on their sport. For example, Stephen Cline, a football player at Kansas State, was told to switch from his passion for veterinary work so that he could focus on his athletics. Cline reflects, “the whole time...I felt stuck – stuck in football, stuck in my major. Now I look back and say, ‘well what did I really go to college for?’ Crap classes you won’t use the rest of your life? I was majoring in football.”
Sometimes, these shortcuts cross the line into academic fraud. The University of North Carolina was exposed for running over 1,800 “paper classes” from 1999-2011, which required minimal work and inflated grades to help athletes to maintain their eligibility. The NCAA declined to punish the university. Ten years of exploitation, as UNC and the NCAA pocketed billions from those athletes’ performances on fields and courts over the years. Countless athletes who did not get the education the NCAA claims to hold so dear. And no consequences for the people who facilitated it.
Meanwhile, athletes are routinely punished for violating ambiguous rules. In an op-ed Draymond Green, an alum of Michigan State and now a player for the Golden State Warriors, called the NCAA a “dictatorship” because of its archaic rules. He recalled an instance when he was given only three tickets for his family to attend his Final Four game, meaning his whole family could not attend. If someone gifted his grandmother a ticket or Green sold his autograph to pay for it, he would have been punished. In Green’s words, the NCAA “controls everything you do. And if you don’t follow its archaic rules, it will prohibit you from playing.”
It seems like a tiny rule, but it is just one example of the litany of tripwires that await student-athletes. Minor, common-sense infractions threaten their eligibility and by extension their future opportunities. A predominantly white institution holds in its hands the futures of predominantly black athletes, and they are powerless to fight back.
This year, University of Memphis star basketball player James Wiseman was suspended because in 2017, while Wiseman was in high school, his family—without Wiseman’s knowledge—accepted an $11,500 payment from Penny Hardaway to help him move to Memphis and play for Hardway’s team. Hardaway is now the coach at the University of Memphis. The NCAA ruled this an “improper benefit” because Hardaway had donated $1 million to the university in 2008, making him a booster for the school. To get back on the court, Wiseman would have to serve his 12-game suspension and pay back the $11,500.
What may seem like a technicality took a significant toll on Wiseman. He described the experience as “dehumanizing,” creating a sense of “mental agony” that left him “crying every night” as the pressure of the legal issues interfered with his ability to play the game he loved. Rather than returning to the team after his 12-game suspension, Wiseman withdrew from the university to focus on preparing for the NBA draft. He explained that, being “just a regular college student,” his inability to pay the $11,500 contributed to his decision to leave Memphis, along with the risk of injury. He joins a growing trend, as the two other players projected to top the NBA draft along with Wiseman are currently playing overseas for pay rather than in the NCAA as they await draft eligibility. They see through the NCAA’s game, and are taking back their agency.
On the one hand, the NCAA insists on college athletes placing as much emphasis on their education as they focus on their athletics, while at the same time doing everything they can to prioritize profit, often at the expense of athletes’ academics. Even Mark Lewis, a former NCAA vice president turned player advocate, recognizes this: “The challenge with college sports is you’ve made everything else professional, except the labor model.” And it is impossible to ignore the fact that this disenfranchised labor model is comprised of mostly black athletes.
The $14 billion in revenue that college sports programs brought in last year surpasses every professional league in the world except the NFL. The time to oppose the commercialization of college athletics is long gone, especially for the NCAA, the very institution that fueled it. If everyone around athletes benefits from their labor, athletes have a right to share in the rewards they generate.
The argument that the opportunity for future earnings justifies amateurism falls flat as well. Essentially, the NCAA requires athletes to sacrifice their bodies, which their livelihood depends on, for the miniscule chance of making it to the professional league, and an even lower chance of lasting there. According to the NCAA, of the tens of thousands of athletes who sacrifice so much for their schools, only 1.6% of football, 1.2% of men’s basketball, and 0.9% of women’s basketball players make it to the professionals. If they are among the few who make it to the next level, the average NFL career lasts only 3.3 years. These statistics reveal just how valuable an athlete’s college-age years are—it may well be their only chance to capitalize on their talent and hard work. Yet they have to spend those years laboring for an institution that does not value them.
The possibility of being able to earn in the future is extremely precarious. Take Zion Williamson for example. A highly-recruited, top-performing freshman for Duke basketball last year, Williamson was expected to be drafted first overall in the NBA draft before the season even started. But he had to spend at least a year in college, delaying his ability to earn his due off his talent and risking an injury that could derail it all. And it nearly did.
Thirty seconds into a game last winter, Williamson’s shoe broke open, the sole completely separating from the rest of the sneaker, leaving the star with a sprained knee. In one bizarre moment, we saw how quickly an athletes’ future can disappear, how fragile their opportunity really is. A number of observers, including Scottie Pippen and Isaiah Thomas, argued that Williamson should have forgone the rest of the season. Donovan Mitchell, a player for the Utah Jazz, tweeted “let’s remember all the money that went into this game.... and these players get none of it.... and now Zion gets hurt... something has to change @NCAA.”
That game, the latest chapter in Duke’s famed rivalry with the University of North Carolina, is a perfect microcosm of the asymmetry of how money runs through college athletics. It was the most-viewed weekday game in NCAA history, with 4.3 million people tuning in. Tickets on game day cost $4000, matching the Super Bowl that year. Duke has a lucrative deal with Nike to equip its athletes. The details of the deal are not public, but the University of Michigan recently signed a deal with Nike worth $127 million over eleven years, while UNC will receive over $90 million over its ten-year partnership with the brand. UNC’s coaches also have contracts with Nike—the men’s basketball head coach Roy Williams will receive $300,000 a year. All this money swirled around the game, yet the players on the court received none of it.
A former Nike executive, Sonny Vacarro, who helped start the sneaker endorsement trend in college sports back in the 1970s, now realizes the unfairness of the industry. While schools and coaches profit, “we see the kids wearing the shoes and selling the product all over the world — and the kids never got anything. The money has served the same people, except for the most important ones.”
The argument for allowing student-athletes to earn money does not imply that college athletics are inherently bad. In an interview a few months ago, Williamson recounted how he wanted to stay at Duke, and did not decide to enter the draft until deadline day. But as much as he enjoyed college, the incentives to stay were not compelling enough—why stay in a place where he cannot make money and would risk his ability to do so in the future when teams and brands were lining up to reward him now? If he was able to support himself and his family while enjoying the college experience, perhaps it would have made more sense for Williamson and others like him to stay in school longer.
When his sneaker broke open, so potentially did Williamson’s chance to earn a share of the profits his school and the NCAA had already pocketed. The NCAA is comfortable making athletes like Williamson into walking billboards, but somehow allowing them to advertise for their own benefit is a bridge too far.
A movement is growing among states to implement laws allowing athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness, for example through endorsement deals and merchandising. Last year, California was first to pass such a law, which will go into effect in 2021. Many states, and even Congress, are beginning to follow suit, as they should.
If the NCAA wants student-athletes to be treated as full people, and wants to put the power behind that hyphen, it should support allowing college athletes to reap the rewards of their labor. Allowing athletes to share in the benefits of effort they put into athletics acknowledges and appreciates that work, rather than taking it for granted.
It is unacceptable that student-athletes should be struggling to get by while everyone around them makes a fortune. It is unjust that an athlete should risk his or her entire future for a university that shares none of the profits of their work. If the NCAA wants to focus on education, it should stop giving schools every incentive to prioritize profit. If it wants college athletics to continue to be a multibillion dollar industry, it should not keep athletes from getting their fair share.