The Injustice in College Sports

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Any fan of college sports loves this march madness time of the year. Those fans are also aware of other issues that pervade the NCAA system and are often featured in special reports alongside the tournament. The NCAA is a multibillion dollar industry built atop a labor and celebrity force (college athletes) who are largely required to work for free. True, the athletes are usually playing as part of a scholarship program but that tradeoff represents a bygone era whose terms no longer make sense in this day and age.

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Today the most successful of college athletes will not even complete college before going pro yet the university, the NCAA and various corporate interests such as Nike, Adidas and Under Armor will make fortunes off the athlete’s name and efforts. The athletes themselves are forbidden any access to that fortune lest they forfeit their amateur status and rights to play in the NCAA.

Consider the following:

  • In almost every year of the past decade the combined revenues of the top 10 college sports programs was over $1 billion.
  • The annual revenue of the NCAA athletics programs today is around $11 billion, higher than the estimated totals of both the NBA and the NHL – professional leagues where players are rewarded with multi-million dollar contracts and endorsement awards.

  • Universities and their coaches pull in fortunes for their athletic programs individually. Duke for example recently had total annual revenue of $80 million, paying nearly $9 million to legendary Coach Krzyzewski. John Calipari in Kentucky takes in $7.99 million a year. Chris Holtman at Ohio State is third on the list at $7.15 million.
  • On the football side of things, the top three paid coaches (Saban, Meyer, and Harbaugh) take in a combined total of more than $25 million a year after bonuses are included.
  • The University of Alabama took in more than $143 million in athletic revenues last year – more than 25 out of 30 NBA teams.
  • This chart shows that in all but 10 states in America, the highest paid public employees are college coaches. Their salaries, in the multi-million dollar range, are exponentially more than the average state employee yet this does not include the endorsements they also carry with different apparel companies and others.
  • The average pay for a BCS eligible college coach last year was more than $2 million annually. It was over $1 million for a basketball coach.
  • The average college athlete invests 43.3 hours a week in their sport to maintain their college scholarship that the university and the NCAA are leveraging to rake in billions.

  • The student-athletes wear shoes with prominently featured corporate logos like Under Armor and Nike. These endorsements for the shoe companies are gained by awarding the universities and NCAA massive contracts of which the student sees nothing. In addition to this, top performing athletes see their jerseys sold through the university but see none of these profits for themselves.
  • On top of the revenues made from the sports programs, most colleges charge an athletic fee to their students which helps pay for the college athletes’ scholarships.
  • This chart shows the gap between college athletic programs revenue and scholarship expenses for those same colleges.  Notice how the revenues are skyrocketing more and more every year while scholarship expenses hold relatively steady.

This is what a cash cow looks like!



The Popular Solutions

 

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Ed O’Bannon was the UCLA power forward who broke the heart of my Arkansas Razorbacks in their efforts for a national championship repeat in 1995. Shortly after this O’Bannon found himself watching a video game with his name and likeness being played. The video gaming company and the NCAA were making huge profits off his name that he was not allowed access to, nor was his consent needed for this profitable venture. This was the beginning of a case that has gone all the way to the US Supreme Court regarding pay for college athletes and it is the impetus for many of the more popular solutions for this increasingly recognized injustice.

The solutions vary in their format but they come down to the simple concept of paying the athletes a portion of the profits and revenues they are bringing in for the universities and NCAA. Some believe this pay should be in the form of a stipend or allowance, some believe it should be tiered according to skill, program and sport profitability, and others believe it should be linked to the sales of each player’s jersey. In this way, the more popular and profitable a player is – the more personally profitable he becomes.



New Problems Result

These solutions of course bring in all sorts of new quandaries. If college athletes are paid, how do we define an amateur? What is the difference now between a professional athlete (like a player in the NBA or NFL) and a player in the NCAA? How would these solutions affect fairness and parity among conferences and divisions? Would traditional favorites like the final four tournament or football national championships become a thing of the past, as systems of parity are replaced by dominating sports behemoths among colleges able to leverage economic strength to recruit the best athletes and legally offer them the financial incentive to play at their school rather than another?

We run the risk of creating an evil empire situation (a reference to the New York Yankees of years gone by) in college sports and thus ruin the parity of the system that makes it so appealing to fans.

I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea of paying college athletes and there is definitely an injustice here, but these kinds of issues are only the beginning of a complex issue that is not solved by simply paying the athletes.

Beginning in 1972 Title IX was established to protect people from discrimination based upon sex in any college program that receives federal funding. This was the leverage point for many women’s college sports programs to grow in size and support in the decades since. While they have grown in popularity, women’s sports still pale in comparison to those of the men regarding financial revenues for the individual schools and the NCAA. How would this be addressed in a system where college athletes are paid?

What about other sports programs that are not as profitable as football or basketball? As higher revenues generate higher support for football and basketball would swimming, track & field, and fencing teams be left behind?

When we openly embrace the monetization of college sports and the college athletes’ participation in the business end of things, thing do not only get more complicated – they get a lot more unfair. Like it or not, the merit-based nature of sports means the money goes where the popularity is.

If we begin paying college athletes our attempt to solve one injustice is really only creating new ones; the system becomes more uneven and people are left behind. In the end, a very small minority of premier athletes and programs are elevated while the rest fade to secondary status – at best . The system grows more corrupt and accessibility to opportunity is strained even more for those athletes not in the spotlight.

The Social Issue

The real problem behind the money we pour into college sports programs and the injustice experienced by the athletes who are used to make these programs profitable is a social issue – not a sports issue. It is a reflection of our society’s values. The billions of dollars raked in by the NCAA, individual college programs, and coaches are only half the equation. On the other side of this story of greed and excess is a society not only willingly participating in it but driving it upwards in excess.

Arrive at almost any university campus in the nation and the finest, newest, glossiest section of that campus will be the sports facilities. Many of these campuses are hosted by states who have sectors of their economy and population plagued with poverty, low-quality education, and an array of social issues that do not balance against the esteemed athletic programs.

After all of this investment, what is the ultimate output of these athletic programs? True some will turn out a number of professional athletes of whom a fraction will find success. Beyond this, the “school spirit” and statewide united support for the program is often a reflection of the athletic program’s success or efforts toward success. These are nice luxuries but they hardly work to balance against the higher priority social and economic issues of the states. College athletic programs receive a far higher balance of support, financial and otherwise from their states than do any of the other programs operating on these campuses.

The inputs do not match the outputs. For all the resources that states, alumni, and fans pour into the college athletic program there is no matching return to the quality of life in the state for 99.9% of the people.

This is something we as a society have chosen. It was not thrust upon us. It is a reflection of our values. Poverty reduction, education, access to a higher standard of life, pale in comparison to the chances of our team reaching the national college championship. We might not admit to that but our financial investments prove it true. As the Bible verse says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

In my home state the head coaches in football and basketball are the first and second highest paid state employees respectively. The athletic programs boast some of the finest arenas and football fields (don’t forget the practice fields and facilities) in the country. Fans and the university are recently looking to update some of these facilities to continue to attract talent and fans. Neither of these programs have been anywhere near the smell of a national championship for decades.

Inputs do not equal the outputs. And outputs are needed in this state. We have a 19% poverty rate. One in three kids lives in poverty. Many parts of the state are faring average but in the delta region crime rates, unemployment, single parent homes, and rates of family members incarcerated are all higher than the rest of the state. Life expectancy is lower here. The likelihood of having indoor plumbing or a kitchen is lower in the delta region. The shortest life expectancy in the state and the highest rate of living on disability are all based there.

The delta is also where some of the state’s finest athletes are recruited from. My home state is not even at the top of this list of disparity.

Inputs do not equal outputs. We pour shocking amounts of money into our athletic programs with little social returns to the bottom line.

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Solution 

This is not an impossible issue to correct however. In fact, as I see it, the issue is very simple but involves a correction of our values that lie at the root of this injustice. The focus upon college athletes receiving a portion of the revenues their work yields to the university and NCAA system is a focus that is very individual-centric. We are concerned for the benefits, rights and welfare of the individual who is being taken advantage of. This is a legitimate concern – but is it the correct concern?

Including the individual athlete in the take the university and NCAA are earning off their work every year does not correct the injustice. It does not affect the disparity of inputs to outputs that our society is propagating in this system. In the end, this merely includes the individual athletes in the advantaged end of the unjust system. The system remains corrupt and imbalanced and society is not improved.

 

 

This unjust system could be quickly reformed and corrected when we shift our values from a position that promotes and idolizes the individual athlete to one that connects individual success to community enrichment. Rather than endorsing the individual athlete with an individual paycheck which current solutions are proposing, what if that athlete’s success resulted in higher standards of living and greater opportunity for their hometown and community?

Using my own state as an example, the proposed solution would look like this. Rather than the state university keeping the bulk of the revenues every year from the athletic program to build new football fields and pay outrageous and ridiculously unmerited coaching salaries, the revenues kept by the university would be capped. The cap could be managed and updated by a state-sponsored commission consisting of both university staff and government officials. All revenues brought in above the cap would be distributed to the areas of the state most economically distressed in the form of college scholarships and small business grants.

The athletic program’s success then results in lifting the delta region out of poverty with better jobs, better education and greater access to higher standards of living. Individual success of the athlete and the athletic program means a better life for the people supporting the program. School spirit and statewide support are by no means harmed by this strategy. The university continues to increase revenues with new students and the state collects more taxes through new businesses and new jobs.

I have a hard time seeing a problem here. But when I first published this idea in the spring of 2016 critics complained that what I was proposing was socialism.

First, this is not socialism. Words have meanings and a lot of people need to read a book or two to learn what socialism really is. Nearly every state program has commissions attached to it that regulate its activity; from the Game & Fish to the Small Business Administration. Second, with the exception of our college coaches, most state employees have their salaries regulated. This is not a new concept. Finally, while we are using provocative words try the word “cartel.” The word cartel was used to describe the Colombian drug trade in the 1980s.

cartel is a group of apparently independent producers whose goal is to increase their collective profits by means of price fixing, limiting supply, or other restrictive practices. Cartels typically control selling prices, but some are organized to control the prices of purchased inputs.

Cartel” is also the word that describes the current system being used and profited from by the NCAA and college sports.

Skeptics will argue we have to offer coaches high salaries and spend lavishly on athletic programs to make our programs appealing to the best athletes. There is no evidence to suggest that high coaching salaries result in better athletic programs. (Again, the top two public salary positions in my state are annually dominated by coaches and programs that never demonstrate an inkling of a threat to the national titles. Their success at the conference level is not much better.)

Coaches do not have to be made poor by this solution. If the capping of the coach’s salary were 10X the average public employee in the state his earnings would still be reasonably competitive and locally exorbitant. Such a salary would also be a fraction of what current salaries and endorsements gain them.

The appeal of the program would draw locally grown athletes. In a few years, they are playing basketball and football in the high school campuses financed by these revenues filtered down to them from the college. Their parents have jobs and businesses thanks to the small business grants that came through the profits of the athletic program. The community-centric values, rather than the individual-centric values are benefitting everyone. The better one of us does, the better we all do.

It’s a shift in our values that result in an economic rising of the tide for all ships in the state. The measurements to assess how this affects the individual athletes are less tangible but few studies have ever shown that a greater concern for others in the community over ourselves does a lot of harm.

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