Is The NCAA Exploiting Student-Athletes?
On March 27th the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University football players can unionize and negotiate for better working conditions. This is only the latest development in a long legal battle that hinges on one question: is the NCAA exploiting student-athletes? In this post, Nathan Palmer offers us a sociological angle on the exploitation question.
“I don’t feel student-athletes should get hundreds of thousands of dollars, but like I said, there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I’m starving,” said Shabazz Napier. Napier said this moments after winning the Men’s Basketball National Championship when a reporter asked for his opinion on the recent federal ruling that the Northwestern Men’s football team can unionize to negotiate for better working conditions. Right now college athletes, coaches, administrators, and the NCAA are scrambling to figure out what will happen if student-athletes become university employees and unionize. As the debate over student-athlete unionization rages onward, this gives us an opportunity to examine what it means to exploit workers
Who is Benefitting From This?
One of the most powerful questions we can ask as a sociologist is, “who is benefitting from this?” This is the question a conflict theorist always asks. Conflict theory argues that the world is in constant competition to secure scarce resources. With this in mind, let us take a look who’s benefitting from the current NCAA arrangement.
Let’s be clear about one thing from the jump, a lot of people are making a lot of money off of college athletics. Last year the NCAA reported net assets of $627 million dollars (with a $61 million surplus). The athletic programs at 5 schools (Alabama, Texas, Ohio State, Florida, and Tennessee) raked in over $100,000,000 in total revenue. If you think about all of the ticket sales, branded clothing, TV broadcasting rights, advertising partnerships, corporate sponsorships, etc. there is a lot of money being made and none of it goes to the college athletes as direct monetary compensation.
However, student-athletes do often receive scholarships that cover their tuition, books, room-and-board, etc. Now, these scholarships are not often guaranteed. Meaning that if you blow out your knee as a freshmen and have to quit the team, you may lose your scholarship. We should also consider that not every sport/athlete is financially lucrative. Some college athletes and some college sports are far more popular and generate far more revenue for their university.
We must also consider the relationship between the NCAA and the professional sports leagues. Currently the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and most every other professional sports league uses the NCAA as a talent incubator. Professional athletics uses the NCAA as a sort of un-paid “farm team”. The NCAA and universities build the skills of the professional athletes of tomorrow and this costs the professional leagues nothing.
Looking at the NCAA’s management of student-athletes we can see vast inequities. For some students in highly lucrative sports, the NCAA is a raw deal. For other athletes in non-lucrative sports, the NCAA and a college athletic scholarship might be a good deal. But it’s clear that the NCAA and professional sports leagues are benefitting from the unpaid labor college student-athletes provide.
Does This Qualify as Exploitation?
Before we can decipher whether or not this qualifies as exploitation we first need to have a working definition of the term. According to Karl Marx exploitation occurs when a laborer produces more value than they are paid for. By this logic, damn near everyone is exploited. For instance, I teach approximately 400 students each semester. The amount of revenue my teaching generates for the university is far greater than the amount of money I am paid for my labor.
A more common understanding of exploitation is any situation that takes advantage of another persons’ circumstances. However, we don’t typically call an unequal situation exploitive until the amount of inequality is seen to be “too much”. Obviously this is a subjective process (i.e. what’s too much to one person might be just fine to another). I’ll leave it to you to decide if you feel that the NCAA is exploitive, but what’s important here is that you learn how to use sociology to analyze a potentially exploitive situation.
- Do you think the NCAA is exploiting student-athletes? Explain your answer.
- Do you think student-athletes should unionize? Explain your answer.
- If the NCAA let universities pay their athletes as much or as little as they wanted, would that create a new form of inequality between universities or between athletes at the same university who play different sports?
- For many sports women’s athletics is not as popular or as lucrative as men’s athletics. How might this be an issue if the NCAA allowed universities to pay their athletes?
College football kicked off Aug. 26, and for most of the seniors on the field, this year will be the last time they ever wear a football uniform.
The overwhelming majority of them will never play again.
Of the 70,000 students who play college football, fewer than 2 percent will be drafted into the NFL, according to research from the NCAA. Put another way, 98 percent of college students who play football will be launching careers in something other than sports when their eligibility ends.
They will no longer be competing for playing time. They will be competing for jobs.
The same is true in college basketball, where news of the relatively few players who leave school early to enter the NBA draft sometimes skews the reality of intercollegiate athletics. The truth is fewer than 2 percent of all college basketball players will be drafted into the NBA.
Most of the 170,000 students who play Division I sports don’t play the games they love so they can make a living. They play them so they can learn to make a life. They do that by earning college degrees and learning the invaluable lessons sports teaches them.
Critics of college athletics claim college athletes are exploited. They argue that students who play sports should be paid salaries because their schools generate revenue from televised games.
Despite the claims of critics and plaintiff’s lawyers who want to dismantle college athletics as we know it, our students who play sports are not exploited. They are educated.
College students who play sports are supported at the highest level with strong academic and counseling resources, outstanding facilities, high-quality medical care, unlimited meals and basic benefits the critics take for granted, including scholarships covering tuition, room and board to stipends for living expenses.
These tremendous benefits allow students who play sports on scholarship to graduate without the massive college debt plaguing millions of young Americans. Young people today have an astounding $1.3 trillion in student loan debt. But for those who play college sports, including many who are the first in their family to attend college, it’s extremely important to keep this opportunity engine going strong.
While today’s college athletes enjoy more benefits than they ever have, the data show that the value of college sports goes far beyond what they receive in school.
College athletes graduate at a slightly higher rate than their peers who don’t play sports. They are more likely to get jobs and live healthy and fulfilling lives, according to a wide-ranging Gallup study.
That is the reality of college athletics. Students who play college sports are not professional athletes. They are students. It’s that simple.
College athletes are more successful than their peers who don’t play sports because they are launched into the workplace with experience and skills that give them an advantage that starts at the interview table.
Employers at top companies are looking for more than technical or digital skills in today’s workplace. They want candidates with soft skills, such as the ability to work well on diverse teams, manage time effectively and fit into their company’s culture. In other words, they are looking for employees who are good teammates.
Those who claim college athletes are taken advantage of also fail to appreciate the inherent value of a college degree. According to the most recent earnings study by the College Board, college graduates will earn 67 percent more than high school graduates over the span of a 40-year working career.
The disparity is even higher among young women. Women ages 25-34 with four-year degrees will earn 84 percent more than women with a high school education.
The bottom line? Intercollegiate athletics opens doors of opportunity for nearly 500,000 students who compete at more than 1,100 institutions across the nation. While they only play their sport for four years, they benefit from their education and experience for the rest of their lives.
Today’s college students who play sports on scholarship receive more benefits than ever, from living expenses on top of scholarships and more time off to multiyear scholarships that guarantee their aid will never be taken away.
Those are just a few of the positive changes that are helping our students succeed in college and in life.
And that is what college athletics is all about.
Jim Delany is commissioner of the Big Ten Conference and Andrea Williams heads the Big Sky Conference.