In 1995, several years after he stepped down as the NCAA’s executive director of 36 years, Walter Byers published Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes. The title didn’t belie the book’s content. Among Byers’ confessions was the deception he sought in coining the well-worn phrase “student-athlete” to describe college athletes.
Byers wrote he did so in 1964 after two state courts ruled in separate cases that scholarship students injured or killed in the course of their athletic duties were actually university “employees” due workers’ compensation. “[The NCAA] dreaded [the] notion that NCAA athletes could be identified as employees by state industrial commissions and the courts,” Byers stated. “We crafted the term student-athlete, and soon it was embedded in all NCAA rules and interpretations as a mandated substitute for such words as players and athletes.”
Those of us in the media perpetuated the semantic sleight of tongue and, in doing so, provided cover for the NCAA in public perception and legal challenges to the truth about college athletes’ status. Ever since, they’ve been described as amateurs being rewarded with a scholarly opportunity rather than what they really are — another set of employees, like administrators, faculty or staff, on the college campus.
So the question bubbling up now — with the freshest challenges to the NCAA’s plutocracy led by the O’Bannon lawsuit — about whether college athletes should be paid is shortsighted. College athletes, expressly those in appropriately described revenue-generating sports of football and basketball, should be remunerated, which they already are by return of tuition, room and board. But they should also be afforded benefits, which a group of Northwestern University football players are seeking in a filing in late January with the National Labor Relations Board to become the first unionized college athletes. They want to get the same workers’ comp and health care as others on campus who toil to maintain or manufacture profits for the higher education corporation. To continue to do anything less in the multibillion dollar financial environment that college athletics has become isn’t simply unfair; it is unethical if not immoral.
Take, for example, the University of Texas. The latest information it reported to the U.S. Department of Education showed that during the 2011-2012 school year, the university spent $25.8 million on its football team and that football team returned $103.8 million in revenues. One reason that contributed to the extraordinary return on investment was a 20-year, $300 million contract signed with ESPN in 2011 to create the Longhorn Network, which is a new telecasting arm for all Texas sports. Another factor was licensing royalties Texas earned for selling its logo and burnt orange color on merchandise, which, for an eighth consecutive year, was the top-selling college merchandise in what is a $4.6 billion industry nationwide.
Yet, a study released in 2011 by the Drexel University Department of Sport Management estimated that Texas scholarship football players lived $778 below the federal poverty line. It also estimated that Texas players’ fair market value was $513,922, the most of any football players at any college, given the revenue they produced.
Entitled “The Price of Poverty in Big Time College Sport,” the study found that on average, room and board provisions on a full scholarship left 85 percent of Football Bowl Subdivision football and basketball players living on campus, and 86 percent of players living off campus, subsisting below the federal poverty line. The study estimated the fair market value of the average FBS football and basketball player at $120,048 and $265,027, respectively.
Meanwhile, men’s basketball head coaches whose teams made the NCAA Tournament in 2010 earned, on average, about $1.4 million annually, while football head coaches at the top 60 FBS football schools were paid on average more than $2 million in total compensation.
College athletics were never intended to be a for-profit venture, but now they are, all the while remaining married to institutions ostensibly built for higher learning and operating under protection of non-profit umbrellas. It is a time for a divorce.
Football and basketball need to be severed from the college campus. They should be re-established as what they’ve become — for-profit corporations. They should pay rights fees to the colleges and universities, with which they long have been associated, for the license to sport the colors and nicknames of those institutions and use their facilities, which could support minor sports just as football and basketball revenues do today. More important, they should then treat all of their labor, athletes included, like employees, with pay and benefits, the latter of which is what a college athletes’ organizing effort called the National Collegiate Players’ Association has advocated for years.
And if those employed athletes want to matriculate at the institution, they should be granted the opportunity just like any other college or university employee rather than being forced to do so as they are now, which often results in making a mockery of the college classroom.
College athletes never should have become indentured servants. It long has been time to treat them equitably.
Kevin B. Blackistone is a regular ESPN panelist, visiting professor at the University of Maryland’s Merrill College of Journalism and longtime sports columnist.