By: Dorwin Howard

Imagine you run a very successful business, generating revenue of nearly a billion dollars a year. You run this business like any other. You provide services and receive payment for these services. You employ over 460,000 employees, whom are the life blood of your company. But the greatest part of this business is that the employees work for free. Sounds like a great business model; that is unless you are one of those employees working for free.

The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) regulates athletes of over 1,200 member institutions, conferences, and organizations. Each member institution has a compliance department designed to educate student-athletes and coaches on NCAA regulations and to prevent the violation of those regulations. While the NCAA is a non-profit organization, it generated nearly one billion dollars in revenue during the 2014 fiscal year. That money is generated from ticket sales, TV deals, and merchandise (formally included video games), among other things. The following discussion will focus on the top money earning sports in the country; football and basketball.

A 2013 study conducted by Shaun R. Harper, executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, found that black men make up 2.8 percent of undergraduate students but 57.1 percent of football players and 64.3 percent of men’s basketball players in the top six power conferences. On first glance these findings seem to support the NCAA’s stance on the issue. The NCAA stands by the notion that they are providing athletes with an education that they may not otherwise have access to for financial reasons. In exchange for this education athletes make millions of dollars for the NCAA, coaches, athletic directors, and their schools. The truth is the trade-off is neither proportionate nor fair.

Student-athletes receive full and partial scholarships to attend school in exchange for providing their services on the field or court. Athletes also gain national exposure and attention from professional leagues. While many players enjoy these benefits, they go hungry, and have a lack of clothing other than the athletic clothing provided by their respective sports teams. In 2014, after leading the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team to a national championship, Shabazz Napier revealed that there were nights he went to bed hungry while he was a student-athlete.

Most institutions have meal plans and nutritional guidelines in place for student-athletes, but clearly there is a breakdown somewhere. Whether a student is the top athlete on the top team in the country or the worst athlete on the team in the country, they should not go hungry. This is especially true when thousands of dollars are generated per game they play in. The NCAA is committing a social and racial injustice by attempting to justify not paying athletes by arguing they are compensated in education and exposure. Student-athletes must juggle grueling workout, practice, and playing schedules with attending class and studying. If college athletes are going to be worked like professionals and expected to be students, then they should be adequately compensated.

The disparity between the cost of attendance and the “benefits” provided to some student athletes is large. The current cost of attendance for an out-of-state student at the University of North Carolina is $49,431. It seems highly unlikely that star point guard and Iowa native, Marcus Paige, of the UNC basketball team is receiving an equal tradeoff. Paige, the active scoring leader of the Atlantic Coast Conference, has his likeness exploited for revenue that surely exceeds the cost of attendance at UNC each year. Jerseys and t-shirts brandishing the point guard’s number 5 and not his name are sold at stores all over the country. Thousands flock to the “Dean Dome” and the gymnasiums of opposing teams to see him play. Surely the combined revenue of merchandise and ticket sales exceeds the cost of attendance at UNC and other expenses the school covers for Paige. 

At the start of the year Alabama and Clemson faced off for a national football title. While no player on either team cashed in on the game, their coaches did. Head Coach, Dabo Swinney, of the Clemson Tigers made $3.3 million last year, while the man on the other sideline, Nick Saban, hauled in $7 million for coaching Alabama. By no means should the talent of these men as coaches be understated, but each year they coach the top players in the country, recruiting them with promises of national championships and an opportunity to play at the next level. That can be very enticing for a 17 year old, too young, and too excited to really see the bigger picture.

Each year roughly 15,842 men are eligible for the NFL draft, a draft that takes 256 players. According to the above mentioned study by Harper, 96.1% of the universities in the major six conferences graduated black male student-athletes at rates lower than student-athletes overall and 97.4% of the same institutions graduated black male student-athletes at rates lower than undergraduate students overall. In essence coaches, schools, and the NCAA are simply making promises that will never come to fruition for many student athletes.

There is a problem somewhere if student athletes that were promised an education or a professional career or both are neither going pro nor graduating. A portion of the funds these players “earn” for their coaches, schools and the NCAA should be put towards tutoring and retention programs to make good on the promises of the institution and its representatives.

At the moment there is no clear solution to this issue. Recently the efforts of players of the Northwestern football team to unionize fell short. The failure surely discouraged other teams and athletes from attempting to unionize. Fortunately there is hope. Many student athletes may feel like their voices are going unheard, but it may be because they are speaking the wrong language. “Money talks.”

As recent as November of 2015, players of the Missouri football team proved that there is still truth to the old adage. African American members of the Missouri football team refused to participate in football activities until the university president, Tim Wolfe, either resigned or was fired for his lack of adequate response to racially motivated acts of hatred on campus. Missouri was scheduled to play BYU the coming week and the school would face a $250,000 rescheduling fee and would be forced to pay $1 million to BYU. Faced with the possibility of a substantial loss from the penalties, Tim Wolfe resigned from the university.

Clearly players have more power than they sometimes realize but there must be some type of system in place to prevent players from taking advantage of the school or NCAA with protest. Maybe in the coming years we will see some type of reform in the NCAA’s stance on fairly compensating student athletes.