Why this matters
College athlete rights advocates see new name, image, and likeness policy as just the beginning for creating a more equitable college sports system in the United States.
Ever since the National Collegiate Athletic Association lifted its longstanding prohibition on college athletes being able to profit from the use of their names, images, and likenesses (NILs) earlier this year, the shift has been celebrated as a major victory for athletes’ rights.
Lost in the cheers, however, is a hard truth: When it comes to college athletes securing safe and fair working conditions, there is much more work to be done.
Denying NIL rights to college athletes wasn’t simply an economic injustice. It was a fundamental violation of the basic human right to one’s own identity. Change was necessary – and overdue. That said, the college sports system remains deeply rooted in harm and exploitation.
What do we mean by exploitation? Simple: the extraction of surplus value from workers, a kind of theft of the value produced by their labor. As for harm, we define it as anything that causes physical, mental, emotional, or financial injury or trauma.
Exploitation and harm are often intertwined, because the conditions necessary for the former facilitate the latter. In college sports, deliberately refusing to classify athletes as workers and stripping them of basic rights and protections – such as the ability to bargain – creates a power chasm between programs and players that makes it much easier to mistreat and abuse athletes without consequences or repercussions.
The NIL era may prove to be the beginning of addressing this imbalance. It should not be the end. As the NCAA works on a new constitution, here are five areas where major change is still needed.
1. Economic Exploitation
If you don’t pay close attention to major college sports, you might assume that recent NIL rules changes have ended the economic exploitation of athletes. But that’s not the case.
College athlete labor generates billions of dollars through television contracts, ticket sales, and other sources of revenue. This money flows into school athletic departments. According to USA Today, the top 10 college athletic departments in the 2018-19 fiscal year earned from $157.7 million (Louisiana State University) to $223 million (the University of Texas).
Roughly 19.5 percent of this revenue goes back to athletes in the form of athletic scholarships and cost-of-living stipends. Meanwhile, schools spend the lion’s share on gold-plated facilities and generous salaries for coaches and other athletic administrators. Each of the 10 highest-paid college football coaches makes in excess of $6 million per year, while the top 10 coaches in men’s basketball are paid more than $3.9 million and the top 10 in women’s basketball are paid more than $2 million.
In American professional sports, athletes aren’t labeled amateurs. Instead, they are free to bargain for salaries and other benefits in exchange for their work. The result? Revenue splits between players and owners that are roughly 50-50. This generally means much more money in the pockets of athletes and much less for coaches: In the National Basketball Association, Los Angeles Lakers head coach Frank Vogel makes $4 million per year while superstar player LeBron James makes $41.1 million.
Sports economist David Berri has estimated that men’s basketball players at an elite Power Five school like Duke University hold an economic value of $145,000 to $4.13 million per year – value that comes from the revenues they generate for their schools, revenues that are entirely separate from outside NIL deals that athletes find for themselves. A scholar might call this arrangement the most egregiously conspicuous form of wealth extraction in all of contemporary capitalist sport; a labor lawyer might consider it to look an awful lot like wage theft. Either way, it’s naked exploitation – stealing, really – and not at all addressed by liberalizing NIL restrictions.
Solutions: Pay-for-work, unionization
As we have discussed elsewhere, the only meaningful counterforce to this exploitation is athlete unionization.
Unionization would empower athletes to defend their rights and interests as a strong, collective unit rather than as a weak, disjointed collection of similarly vested interests. But structural change is needed in order for athletes to receive an equitable share of the money their labor creates. A union could demand a pay-for-work model – and other changes – at the bargaining table, backed up by the threat of withholding services (that is, a player strike).
The NCAA is terrified of pay-for-work. Association president Mark Emmert and the rest of the organization's brass quiver anytime the idea is mentioned, calling it an existential threat. This is partially true: Paying athletes directly would not end college sports, but it absolutely would be an extinction-level event for the current system of mass exploitation that pays people like Emmert so handsomely.
This helps to explain the NCAA’s willingness to move on NIL rights. The association and its member schools have effectively allowed others to pay their campus workers. Still, being paid to sign autographs or post sponsored content on social media is not the same as being paid for your actual job. And it’s no substitute at all for having a legitimate voice and legal recourse to change and shape your working conditions.
2. Athlete Health and Safety
Sports participation is supposed to promote health, but too often, college athletes endure physical and emotional abuse and injuries for the sake of winning games and making money.
- In 2018, University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair died because of heat stroke during an offseason workout, a completely preventable tragedy that resulted in his family receiving a $3.5 million settlement from the university. From 2000 through 2016, 27 NCAA football players died during workouts that did not involve collisions.
- At Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and Ohio State University, team doctors Larry Nassar, Robert Anderson, and Richard Strauss have all been publicly accused or convicted of sexual assault within their athletic programs.
- At the University of Oregon, track and field coaches reportedly presided over a culture of fat-shaming that encouraged disordered eating and other unhealthy behaviors among athletes. One athlete began binge-eating after a team nutritionist pressured her to drop her body fat percentage from 16 percent to 13 percent, even though she hadn’t had her period for longer than a year.
- University of Florida women’s basketball players recently came forward to reveal the racism and abuse they endured at the hands of former coach Cam Newbauer, who screamed at players, threw basketballs at them, and told two Black athletes that their “wife beaters” shirts and long shorts were inappropriate for running errands – and then had assistant coaches get the women Newbauer-approved clothing. Many players quit the team, and one even attempted suicide.
These are only a few of the scandals that have come to light in recent years. What all of them have in common is a lopsided power dynamic: Within school athletic departments and the NCAA system as a whole, athletes lack both the ability to speak out about abuse without fear of being punished and the clout to negotiate better workplace health and safety standards. Instead, they are at the mercy of coaches and other administrators, who sometimes prioritize protecting themselves and their institutions over protecting athletes.
Solutions: Unionization, lifetime health insurance, health and safety protocols based on best practices instead of competitive imperatives.
Changing toxic team cultures, jettisoning abusive coaches, and otherwise getting rid of bad apples is all well and good. However, the college sports industry is a double-bottom line business: Money and winning take precedence over everything else.
As such, union power is the only realistic check against abuse. Athletes must be able to grieve their working conditions with legal protections and be able to withdraw their labor without reprisal.
“A union would help end this cycle by providing representation and support athletes in the face of mistreatment,” says former NCAA softball player Hillary Dole. “A union is meant to provide support for groups of workers from the larger, powerful collectives that ‘own’ them. Too often, athletic departments and universities overlook the fact that athletes are students and not just entities that help generate revenue.”
An athlete union also could push for stricter health and safety rules that prioritize best medical practices and athlete needs – as opposed to schools and the NCAA avoiding legal and financial liability when things go wrong – as well as lifetime health insurance to account for long-term injuries suffered while playing college sports.
3. Meaningful Education
Despite the NCAA’s claims to the contrary, major college sports are predicated on the sacrifice of athletes’ educations. Look at the schedule of any Power Five basketball team: loaded with out-of-state and cross-country games scheduled in prime time on almost every night of the week, including holidays, followed by a 1-2 conference tournament and March Madness punch that asks some players to miss upward of a month of classes. Or consider the highly coveted experiential and practical learning opportunities that universities heavily promote to incoming and current students: internships and summer abroad programs that athletes largely are precluded from because those programs conflict with practices, games, and voluntary – ahem – off-season training.
The NCAA and its member schools often justify economically exploiting athletes by arguing that amateurism enhances education. Graduation rates tell a different story – particularly for Black athletes. The gap between athlete and non-athlete graduation rates has a number of causes that can be connected to sports, including disproportionate athletic expectations that interfere with education and athletic department clustering of athletes’ academic schedules.
Denied a fair share of the money generated by their labor, too many college athletes also don’t receive the compensation they’re promised: a quality education that helps secure their futures. As one Southeastern Conference football player who asked to remain anonymous told us last year: “Our payment as student-athletes is an image that we aren’t allowed to profit from and an education. Being a minority and an athlete disadvantages you from being able to take full advantage of the opportunity. I was told by coaches to drop classes that would take up too much time. I was told that my GPA was fine as long as my eligibility wasn’t at risk.
“The system isn’t fair, and many seem to think it’s broken. The truth is … it’s working as intended. The majority of scholarship athletes who are Black struggle to find good-paying jobs out of college if they can’t make it to [professional sports], while White players, walk-on or not, often land jobs at least earning 60k [$60,000] a year.
“This isn’t a coincidence. I’ve witnessed firsthand the difference in experience White players have compared to their Black counterparts. Boosters and alumni are typically White, and they’re more than happy to hire people that look like them, especially if they came from the team they love. Players who are persons of color aren’t afforded these opportunities because we aren’t members of the same ‘club’ that our White counterparts are beckoned into.”
Solution: Lifetime scholarships.
So long as NCAA schools offer education as the only form of payment for athletic labor, any structural conditions that interfere with learning – like practice schedules that force athletes to change majors – are akin to wage theft.
As such, athletic workers must be able to seek out and receive an unimpeded educational experience. How? By allowing them to complete their studies at any point without the additional burden of high-stakes athletic competition.
4. Gender Inequality
Despite Title IX, the 1972 civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or other education program that receives federal money, gender inequality is built into the very foundation of the NCAA – an organization that was 75 years late to holding championships for women’s sports.
But don’t take our word for it. Ask the law firm Kaplan, Heckler & Fink, which was recently commissioned by the NCAA to conduct a gender equity review and concluded that “gender disparities in the NCAA championships stem from the structure and culture of the NCAA itself.” Ask University of Oregon forward Sedona Price, who took to social media during the 2020 pandemic bubble NCAA basketball tournaments to point out glaring disparities between the weight rooms provided to men’s and women’s players. Or ask the Wall Street Journal reporters who have extensively documented how the association has actively impeded the development and growth of women’s sports.
According to the NCAA’s gender equity review, the association spends an average of $4,285 per participant for the men’s Division I basketball tournament – and just $2,588 per participant for the women’s tournament. The same review estimates that the NCAA has undersold the broadcast rights for the women’s tournament by upward of $78 million annually.
Solution: Treat women’s sports like the business growth opportunity they are instead of the financial burden the NCAA assumes them to be.
The people in charge of college sports are fond of arguing that women’s sports (and less popular men’s sports) are essentially charity cases, propped up by the massive revenues primarily generated by football and men’s basketball. In turn, the idea that women’s sports lose money is used to justify underinvesting in them.
This underinvestment hardly lives up to the spirit of Title IX or to the principles of gender equity the NCAA purports to support. Moreover, it very arguably qualifies as business malpractice, a short-sighted misreading of where tomorrow’s revenues will come from.
College football and men’s basketball didn’t become billion-dollar businesses overnight. It took decades of investment to build those sports to their current levels of popularity and profitability. Because of the broader sexism across society, women’s sports have had a late start: Picture a footrace where one runner explodes out of the blocks at the sound of the starting gun, and another takes their first steps 75 years later.
Still, women’s sports are, and have been, doing quite well. According to a report by professional services company Deloitte, global television and sponsorship revenues for women’s sports will soon surpass $1 billion a year. While the market for college football and men’s basketball is fairly mature, even saturated, women’s college sports have ample room to grow. If the NCAA can’t see this future – and invest to make it a reality – then perhaps it should get out of monetizing college sports altogether.
5. 'Plantation' Dynamics
In the 1950s, Walter Byers, the first executive director of the NCAA, famously coined the term “student-athlete” to counter the threat of athletes receiving workers’ compensation for injuries sustained while practicing and competing for their schools.
Decades later, Byers would turn against the college sports system he helped create, calling it a “a nationwide money-laundering scheme” and lambasting the “neo-plantation mentality that exists on the campuses of our country and in the conference offices and in the NCAA” in which “the coach owns the athlete's feet” and "the college owns the athlete's body.”
Byers’ plantation metaphor remains apt. In his 2010 book The New Plantation, sociologist Billy Hawkins lays out how predominantly White colleges and universities (PWIs) exploit Black athletes for economic gain in a way that reflects long-standing systems of economic, political, social, and cultural coercion that can be traced back to slavery.
These dynamics are most obvious in the Power Five conferences and in the sports that generate the most money: football and basketball. During the 2018-2019 school year, Power Five schools generated a combined $8.3 billion in revenue, disproportionately on the backs of Black athletes.
At Power Five schools, 5.7 percent of students are Black – but Black athletes account for 55.9 percent of men’s basketball players, 55.7 percent of football players, and 48.1 percent of women’s basketball players. Economists Hal Singer and Ted Tatos have calculated that Power Five schools transfer approximately $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion of wealth annually from those Black athletes, primarily for the benefit of the mostly White coaches, athletic department officials, and university presidents who oversee the NCAA system.
Moreover, Black athletes in those sports have disproportionately lower graduation rates. In 2019-2020, the graduation rate across Power Five schools was 78 percent for all undergraduates – yet only 68.6 percent of Black women’s basketball players, 60.6 percent of Black football players, and 46.7 percent of Black men’s basketball players graduated.
In this regard, college sports reflect the larger system of American racial capitalism – as conceptualized by Black studies and political science scholar Cedric Robinson – in which wealth is systematically extracted from racialized communities and transferred to primarily White people and institutions.
Solution: Start with abolishing the NCAA.
Perhaps this seems like a radical suggestion. If so, consider this: All of the major pro-athlete college sports reforms of the past decade, from cost-of-living stipends to liberalized transfer rules to NIL, have happened because the NCAA was facing a legal threat or responding to a courtroom loss. None were made willing; all were forced.
This shouldn’t be surprising. All of the issues identified above are not bugs within the NCAA system. They’re features, inherent to the structure and culture of college sports. And that’s especially true when it comes to the full-spectrum exploitation of Black athletes. The NCAA spares no expense fighting tooth-and-nail to preserve that exploitation because, without it, the association wouldn’t have any real reason to exist. (Also, people like Emmert would make much less money.)
Earlier this summer, Emmert himself told reporters that the time is right to consider a smaller role for the NCAA. We concur. In fact, blow the NCAA up. Tear it down. College sports existed before the association, and they’ll exist long after it’s gone. It’s not enough to solve the plantation dynamics of college sport, but we can’t reduce and ultimately eliminate the harms perpetrated against athlete-workers, particularly Black athlete-workers, without getting rid of the organization that enshrines and perpetuates them, all while giving cover to institutions of higher learning that do the same.
For some, this may make college sports unrecognizable. Maybe that’s long overdue.
College sports changed dramatically this year with new NCAA rules allowing athletes to profit from their names, images, and likenesses (NILs). For athlete empowerment advocates, it was a major victory—one that could prompt further reform and reorganization across the landscape of intercollegiate athletics.
How has NIL already impacted college sports, and what is on the horizon for campuses and their communities around the United States?