Pay for play: the college athlete debate

By: Desmond Boyle, Contributing Writer

The debate over whether or not college athletes deserve to be paid for competing in sports for their respective universities has taken a more prominent position in recent years.

Most recently the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled that college athletes are not employees for their schools, despite the time and labor they put into playing a sport. The decision is a setback for college athletes everywhere, but the NLRB’s ruling barely scratches the surface of the multi-faceted issue of student athletes’ ability to make money.

Before diving into the legal questions within the recent case, there are several other aspects to consider about finances in collegiate athletics. Many may be surprised to know that college athletes were paid for several decades in the early 1900’s, and until 1948. As part of a reform act to control participation in collegiate athletics, the NCAA regulated payment to strictly contributing to student athletes’ tuitions. Since then, college athletics have expanded into a commercial giant that rakes in just under one billion dollars annually. College athletes do not receive any of the money they earn from their school, which poses several problems for them during and after their time as a student athlete.

College athletes certainly do receive a high level of compensation for the labor they provide to their university, such as scholarship money to cover some or all of their tuition and fees. The rules and bylaws that the NCAA and their CEO Mark Emmert have put into place on athletes’ finances, however, can only be described as exploitation. Student athletes are essentially trapped in a system where they receive no ability to make any personal income whatsoever. They may not profit from their name and the like, including autographs and appearances in video games. Thus why the NCAA Football games have been placed on an indefinite hiatus by EA Sports.

Student Athletes also may not be financially compensated for endorsements from sports equipment companies. Universities are prohibited from setting up athletes with occupations connected to the school, and many collegiate athletes have schedules too demanding to get another job. Balancing school work with athletics, which require anywhere from 20 hours to 50 hours of practice every week, becomes a full time occupation for college athletes.

Major athletes have discussed their desire to make money while they were in college. Houston Texans star and former Tennessee Volunteer running back Arian Foster, admitted to receiving money from boosters while at the school, which is a blatant NCAA violation. Shabazz Napier discussed going hungry several nights while starting at point guard for the UCONN Huskies during their 2014 championship run.

Napier was quoted in an interview with Fox Sports as saying, “Sometimes, there’s hungry nights where I’m not able to eat, but I still gotta play up to my capabilities.” Lack of disposable income also hurts student athletes who graduate but don’t become professional athletes in their respective sports. Awareness of the severe dangers associated with contact sports has been on a dramatic rise over the last decade. Progress on improving the safety of these sports or caring for the injuries associated with these dangers, however, has been slow. Student athletes do receive treatment for injuries while on scholarship at their university.

There are still two major problems that student athletes face with the prospect of injuries during their collegiate career. One, their scholarships are not insured or guaranteed for more than one year. Since student athletes sign one year tenders at the beginning of each year, this can become problematic. After an athlete’s one year scholarship ends, if that athlete is injured, then the coach may deem that athlete a waste of a valuable scholarship. If a student athlete is unable to fund their education without their scholarship they may have no option but to return home without graduating no matter how close they were to a degree. The athlete must also finance care for their injuries with no degree or money from the school. The second problem student athletes face is that upon graduation, the care they received for injuries suffered in college ends. So athletes with prolonged and worsening injuries from their college days, like concussions or other head trauma, will have to finance the care for these injuries themselves despite the fact that they generated revenue for their school. The NCAA has continuously argued that college athletes are fairly compensated for their labor and that there is not enough money to distribute to the athletes and the schools that represent them. The NCAA also claims that it takes a meager four percent of the total revenue earned from television contracts and other revenue streams.

According to the Huffington Post, with the total revenue earned from 2014, the NCAA raked in a pretty surplus of $80.5 million. Surely with the massive profits enjoyed by the NCAA and the universities who receive over 90% of the NCAA’s total annual revenue, which was $989 million in 2014, can afford to pay athletes enough to have adequate meal plans and extended health care coverage to protect athletes after their playing days are over.

Here is where the recent NLRB ruling comes into play. The NLRB has taken away the ability for student athletes to improve their situation at all. Despite the fact that student athletes sign annual contracts to provide a service to their university by increasing the university’s revenue, the NLRB ruled that student athletes are not employees for their university. This ruling prevents any progress for student athletes because they have no platform to collectively bargain for an increase in the compensation they receive from their university. Student athletes are also left helpless in profiting off of their name and likeness without the ability to unionize. The NLRB has continued the monologue that the NCAA does not need to provide any compensation beyond scholarship funds to student athletes, however to even start a fair conversation on this issue student athletes need the ability to have a dialogue with the NCAA. Otherwise, the game of exploitation conducted by the NCAA will continue.

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