Why the NCAA Should Pay Student-Athletes and Pay Them Fairly (Part 1 of 2)


Read Part 2 of This Series

The excitement for the upcoming bowl season has just begun. With 35 games beginning December 17th and not ending until January 9th, the bowl season may be the gift that keeps on giving. The national championship game, a rematch between Alabama and LSU, is some 16 days after Christmas, staggering evidence of the extent of the NCAA’s fall economic extravaganza.

This year’s bowl season will also mark another year without reform to collegiate football and college sports in general. It will mark the culmination of yet another collegiate football season where those whose labor, talents, and sacrifices receive the least from the system. Dave Zirin, in “Saluting a Sick System: ‘Sports Illustrated’ Honors Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski,” brilliantly described the year of college sports in the following way:

In 2011, we all learned just how low the NCAA and its member schools would go to defend their bottom lines. We learned how people in power at Penn State University would put the lives of children at risk, if it meant preserving the lucrative legend of Coach Joe Paterno. We learned what Syracuse University and the surrounding community would be willing to cover up—and how many children they would endanger—to protect their own Hall of Fame Coach Jim Boeheim and the $19 million dollar annual cash-cow of Syracuse hoops. We saw Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel resign after a series of scandals that now look quaint, and we witnessed the University of Miami Athletic Department reel under the weight of the gutter economy of exchange between criminal boosters and the school’s President Donna Shalala.

Amid the scandals, the persistent exploitation, and systemic prioritizing of money over anything else, 2011 has also seen an increased emphasis on reform. “Fifty years ago, there was not any kind of money, and the players got full scholarships. Now they’re still getting full scholarships, and the money is just in the millions,” argued South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier. “I don’t know how to get it done. Hopefully, there’s a way to get our guys that play football a little piece of the pie… They bring in the money,” Spurrier said. “They’re the performers.” Similarly, Robert Lipsyte highlights the hypocrisy that is the NCAA: “The true madness of March is the millions of dollars — generated by the kids who touch the ball — that goes mostly to the advertising hustlers, television suits, arena operators, concession hawkers, athletic gear manufacturers and retailers, university administrators, coaches and sports media noisemakers. No wonder they don’t want to share any of that money with the players. They’ve locked the doors on their sweat shop.”

Focusing on the financial difficulties facing many college athletes and the gross disparities between the billions generated the pittance awarded to “student-athletes,” much of the discourse has focused on the question of compensation. Invariably opponents and naysayers dismiss the idea of paying “student-athletes,” arguing that it would be impossible to administer and that paying “student-athletes” violates the core mission of higher education. Despite such claims, what they fail to see (or acknowledge) is that “student athletes” are paid: they are paid with the opportunity to showcase their talents (especially within the revenue sport), have a college experience, and receive a college education/degree. As such, the question isn’t or shouldn’t be whether college athletes should be paid but whether the current levels of compensation are just and fair.

While the fulfillment and value of each of the above “wages” are questionable, I want to focus on the question of education given the widespread celebration of college sports as a vehicle of educational upward mobility. Historically, this question has focused on graduation rates, rightly questioning if “student-athletes” can be compensated if a sizable portion are not graduating. The abysmal graduation rates at particular schools, especially when it comes to African-American “student-athletes” points to the inherent exploitation of the system. Citing a report from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, at the University of Central Florida – “Keeping Score When It Counts: Graduation Rates for 2010 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament Teams.”Colorlines reported the following in 2010:

Given the ways that the NCAA has changed how it looks at graduation rates and its “focus on eligibility rather than education,” (Oriard 2009, p 208), the discussion must move beyond graduation rates.

Beyond the issue of graduation rates, it is crucial to look at the quality of education received by “student-athletes” in evaluating the inequity in the exchange. The amount of time spent at practice, at meetings, in treatment, and for games, not to mention traveling and other ancillary activities (community outreach; media), takes “student-athletes” away from their education. Possibly more damaging are the constant demands outside the classroom, and the overall emphasis on athletic performance from coaches, community, and peers, which sends a profound message to “student-athletes” regarding where their priorities should be each and every day. For Black-student athletes, the mixed messages are even more deleterious given how the hegemonic imagination constructs Blackness as being antithetical to intellectual pursuits, scholarly endeavors, and educational aspirations.

All of this creates a culture where all athletes are told that school matters, yet the structure of the institutions, the demands of sports participation, and the overall culture (where we see its impact on Black “student-athletes” in particularly egregious ways) constantly conveys the ultimate priority of sport. For Black “student-athletes” and “student-athletes” as a whole, their experiences are defined by rhetoric demanding a balance between sports and school, yet daily messages that demand a single-minded focus on sports.

The quality or worth of a college scholarship is further undermined by the structural and cultural realities of collegiate athletic programs. A 2007 NCAA survey of 10,000 college athletes found that 20% were unable to pursue a major in “the field of choice” because of the demands of athletic participation; 40% of those surveyed cited sports as a curricular impediment – being a “student-athlete” prevented them from taking their desired classes.

Confronted with this study, then NCAA President Myles Brand expressed a lack of concern, arguing that student-athletes are “more suited” for specific majors. While seemingly recycling Social Darwinistic arguments and mirroring Newt Gingrich’s recent comments about inner city kids and work, Brand’s comments are particularly important when discussing student-athlete compensation.

Although the educational opportunities and the degree are the primary wages received by “student-athletes” in exchange for their blood, sweat, and tears, the realities of college athletics precludes its fulfillment. “Student-athletes” receive cents on the dollar as a result of these immense restrictions. Worse yet, in naturalizing the issue and reducing it to one of choices, Brand seemingly denies the structural obstacles preventing a more equitable relationship. Noting “everyone doesn’t get in this world to do what they want to do,” Brand concludes that “student-athletes” are no different from other students in this regard: “What we get is student-athletes trading an academic scholarship for not having to work 20 or 40 hours a week.” While erasing the myriad of differences Brand seems to ignore that working students are paid a wage, whereas “student-athletes” are paid with an education, one that doesn’t always meet the expectations of “student-athletes,” and one that the employer devalues and undercuts in profound ways. So next time you hear about “jock majors,” remember who is pushing those majors onto the “student-athlete” and who benefits from this unequal relationship.

Do you agree or disagree? What are your thoughts on whether or not student-athletes should be compensated?

Read Part 2 of This Series


David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs at No Tsuris