WASHINGTON — College athletics at the highest levels is a profitable entertainment business and too many athletes sweating and producing for the industry are exploited and under compensated.
The system needs to change and an appropriate compensation arrangement should be enacted.
Under the guise of amateurism, student athletes work long hours each day. They work what is often the equivalent of a full-time job on top of trying to successfully navigate college.
Now, it is true that the vast majority of the 450,000 plus college athletes are not money makers for their institutions or the peripheral industry.
The compensation that they receive in the form of continued pursuit of their passions and in help with getting a degree is and should be the shining example of a successful system.
Those success stories are harder to find though when taking a closer look at the two big money-making sports, football and basketball.
In these sports, even by the NCAA’s own bloated and incomplete methodology, the student aspect of the student athlete’s work falls measurably short of that of their peers in other college sports.
It is in these two marquee sports that the profits and power lead to a host of problems for athletes and their families. Hundreds of millions of dollars flow to universities, coaches, agents, apparel companies and media, among others, and that wealth is produced by worker athletes.
All this money is not floating around because of the pursuit of education, but because athlete workers produce value.
Improprieties in recruiting are, frankly, the norm and are centered on money. The need for money among many budding college athletes and their families as well as the thirst for money among universities, coaches, sport agents and sporting goods companies drive these violations and the resulting exploitation.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently led a group in investigating problems related to scandalous behavior in college basketball.
While some aspects of the group’s recommendations might have some positive impact, the overall effort seemed to simply reinforce the NCAA’s long held position that student athletes, although treated like employees in a profitable business model, should operate under the NCAA’s definition of amateurism and not be afforded established norms around compensation and protections.
In fact, the NCAA so rampantly defends its definition of amateurism that it has actively sought to shut down entrepreneurial efforts of athletes in college even when those money-making activities have no tangible connection to the sport or the university.
This is a stark contrast to the NCAA’s blinded approach to enforcement of such things as recruiting and academic violations.
Even the “pay” via education provided many top athletes can often not add up to meaningful compensation as universities shuffle their money makers through light course loads or, in some cases, no course load at all, leading to meaningless degrees.
It is past time for change to come and for the militant approach to amateurism to be loosened.
The NCAA should continue and accelerate efforts to make the academic portion of student athlete compensation whole.
A few positive recommendations from the Rice report include establishing a fund to pay for degree completion for athletes who depart college and allowing underclassmen who are unsuccessful in getting drafted to re-enter school. Education quality control should be enforced more rigorously as well.
Those seeking to augment their finances, for example, through unrelated activities should be able to do so and those athletes whose obvious skill has value through the sale of their likeness should have the same right to profit from that skill as the universities, the NCAA and, indeed, the entire sports industry does.
The sooner the NCAA closes the cracks in the academic compensation, and rightfully shares the value of top athletes with the athletes themselves, the better for all involved.
Don Kusler is National Director of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the nation’s oldest progressive advocacy organization. The opinions expressed in this article do necessarily reflect the opinions of ADA, its leadership, or members. Readers may write him at ADA, 1629 K Street NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC, 20006.