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Op Ed

The Price of College Athletics

The NCAA, the college athletic regulatory association, estimates annual revenue from college athletics at $10.6 billion dollars.  The athletes driving these profits do not receive compensation for their labor.  Instead, they are provided a free education along with a stipend for room and board.  Many people seem to think this is enough.  It’s not.

CNN Asks: Is college athletics a sweatshop?

As any college student can tell you, tuition, room and board are not the only expenses associated with attendance.  You buy food (good food, not the cafeteria meal plan junk), clothing, the occasional housewares, and the occasional beer.  The athletes’ scholarship packages do not cover these expenses.

Many college students, even those receiving financial aid, get a job to cover the incidentals.  NCAA regulations bar scholarship athletes from holding paid jobs, citing the risk of “improper benefits.”  This creates an environment in which these athletes, 18 to 22 year old men and women, spend hours a day practicing their sport(s) of choice, hours more in class, with little time for much else.  Even if they were allowed to have jobs, would they have time?

Now, for some very lucky and very privileged athletes, this isn’t a problem.  Imagine we have two athletes, A and B.  Athlete A comes from a family that, had she not been great at basketball, would have been able to afford to send her to college.  Not only is Athlete A gifted on the court, she does well in school and comes from a family well-off enough to help out with college expenses.  For this athlete, the lack of compensation (while unfair) may not pose a problem.

But for some athletes, particularly those who commentators say should be grateful for the free education they receive as a result of being able to run quickly, are not as privileged.

Athlete B is his state’s breakout football star.  He has worked hard, kept his grades up for eligibility, proved himself on and off the field, and stayed out of trouble – all the things he knew he would have to do in order to get the scholarship and a chance to play for Football University.  He needs that scholarship.  Like so many teens in this country, his family isn’t sure how they’re going to afford college.

Athlete B gets the scholarship.  He heads to Football U early in the summer to start practicing for the fall season.  He lives in the dorms with other players, eats team meals with them, and makes friends.  He spends hours in the hot summer sun, sweating under layers of pads and jersey.  He spends hours more in the classroom, not learning calculus, but learning offensive plays.

The season starts.  Practices continue, but every Saturday is spent on the field.  Sundays are spent watching film.  He is injured, maybe a high ankle sprain, a concussion, a dislocated knee cap.  His injuries throw the future profits he has been assured of if he plays well here at Football U, into question.  For all of this, he receives tuition, room, and board.

Meanwhile, Football U is selling tickets to Athlete B’s games for hundreds of dollars.  Liscenced merchandise is sold, at a huge markup, to fans willing to shell out $80 or more for Athlete B’s jersey.  This is a $10 billion dollar plus industry.  Athlete B sees none of these profits.

There are hundreds of young people like Athlete B playing sports for other people’s profit and entertainment.  In exchange, we expect these athletes to work their asses off, never get in trouble, keep their grades up, and most importantly, be grateful.  Be grateful that the rich, mostly white higher-ups at universities and the NCAA have been so kind as to give you an education.  And they can take it away if you fuck up at all, like accept a free tattoo, or talk to an agent about your future career prospects.

Can you imagine business student being denied financial aid because he talked to a career counsellor or headhunter during his senior year of college?

This industry, the talking heads, and the climate of the privileged conditionally granting their privileges to the disadvantaged (and expecting their gratitude) sounds awfully familiar.  I’m not an expert on race in America, and as a white, woefully non-athletic woman from a privileged background, I can hardly claim any insight into the world of Athlete B.  But as a fan, I see a privileged few profiting off the hard, often dangerous work of young people, many of them people of color.  They are expected to be grateful for a roof over their head, shitty university cafeteria food, no free time, an education that they miss because of games and practices and meetings (that they have to attend, or no more free education), and to do it all with no guarantee of successfully reaching the next (paid) level.

So back to the original question: Is college athletics a sweatshop?  Let’s look at sweatshops.  Forced labor for hours on end, no pay, violent supervisors, horrible working conditions, no way out.  Sweatshops are facets of modern slavery.  Modern slavery is roughly defined as forced labor predicated on the threat or assumed threat of violence.  Athlete B isn’t looking at a beating if he stops playing football; there is no threat of physical injury.

Economic injury, however, is a real consequence of his refusal to play without pay.  Loss of scholarship means loss of education, loss of potential professional advancement in his sport, and loss of his personal investment in his sport.

A roof over your head isn’t compensation.  Tuition isn’t compensation.  It’s the least that these universities can give young people who are providing them millions and millions of dollars every year.

So is college athletics a sweatshop?  No, a sweatshop is a sweatshop.  Is college athletics built on a foundation of an unfair balance of power and profit, which (as usual) benefits the privileged few and further exploits disadvantaged groups (the young, POC, the poor)?  Absolutely.  Does the college athletic industry share many of the same traits as modern slavery?  Looks like it to me.  And that’s wrong.

On January 10th, Auburn will take on Oregon in the BCS championship game.  Each school will receive $21.2 million dollars just for playing the game.  That doesn’t include the merchandise profits, increased ticket sales if they win, and any other money-making avenues that may come up.

Athlete B won’t get a penny.

4 replies on “The Price of College Athletics”

Great points, and very well said. Students, especially the ones who are eligible for need-based aid, should be getting stipends if they’re forbidden to have jobs to pay for necessities. One thing, though — athletes aren’t allowed to talk to agents because schools are not allowed to use agreements and contact with certain sought-after agents as leverage in recruitment. And that’s different from a student talking to an in-school career counselor. But I think that just means that student athletes need more options for counseling that’s geared toward sports careers.

NCAA regulations bar scholarship athletes from holding paid jobs, citing the risk of “improper benefits.”

I’m not sure this is the case. I was a student-athlete a few years ago (though not on athletic scholarship) and I remember there being regulations against getting cash prizes for athletic contests, but nothing about not having paid jobs. Maybe I just wasn’t aware of it since it didn’t apply to me, though.

Something else I’d add is that you can’t have both athletic and academic scholarships (at least, I couldn’t). I was fortunate enough to be in Athlete A’s shoes, but it always seemed a bit odd to me to have to choose between being rewarded for academics or athletics.

Also, the sport I was involved in (rowing) offered pretty much zero prospect of a future career in the sport. Of course, it also brought in very little direct revenue for the school (no huge crowds at regattas!)

Did I get a raw deal? No way. But I’m privileged in many ways. Did other student athletes, some of my teammates? Perhaps. I know of one teammate on scholarship who struggled financially. A few others came from overseas and had to deal with all the difficulties of being miles away from family in a foreign country. Another had some conflicts with the coach and ended up leaving the sport.

This is a really interesting perspective, Kate. Eugene is my hometown and I come from a family of die-hard Ducks fans (with me being the only exception) so I feel like I have seen the effects of the money going into the sport as a whole (the Ducks have a super-fancy locker room that has special odor-neutralizing vents in the lockers and all kinds of stuff that Phil Knight bought for them) but have rarely considered what happens for the individual players. I think we do tend to think that they’re getting a pretty sweet deal with a full-ride scholarship, but when you lay it all out…it’s not as sweet as it seems.

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