Underpaid Employees: The NCAA’s Excuse For Not Paying Athletes Isn’t Good Enough

March madness

By Jacob Denninger
Sports Columnist

Don’t get me wrong. I love march madness. It is arguably the most fun event in sports, full of upsets, buzzer beats, cinderella stories, and my personal favorite, brackets. That being said, I am having a difficult time ignoring the dark side of the business this year.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the organization tasked with regulating college sports, blatantly exploits college athletes, mainly Division I football and men’s basketball players.

The NCAA, along with largely complicit conferences and schools, uses the labor of college athletes to make a massive profit for themselves. Besides their scholarships (which have been known to offer subpar educations), the athletes who create these huge profits never see one cent of the estimated $13 billion generated annually by college sports (again, mainly by football and men’s basketball).

The main question I will be discussing is why does the NCAA think they can exploit people like this?

The NCAA’s excuse is one word: amateurism. This is the idea that college athletes are amateurs, not professionals or employees. The NCAA maintains the position that because student-athletes are amateurs, and because this amateurism must be protected at all cost, the athletes can therefore not have any cash income from the billions in revenue that they generate.

But let’s look at the idea that students-athletes are not employees. The NCAA believes that student-athletes are not employees because they are students of their respective universities. Making money from playing their sport would turn these student-athletes into employees, ruining their amateurism. In fact, the term “student-athlete” was coined by the NCAA to specifically emphasize that college athletes are students and not employees.

The problem with that argument is scholarship athletes already are employees. In 2014, the Region 13 National Labor Relations Board Director issued a decision in a case in which Northwestern football players were seeking to unionize. To unionize, these players had to be employees. The director found that Grant-in-aid scholarship football players are employees under the National Labor Relations Act. In other words, collegiate scholarship athletes are already employees of the institution they attend; making any argument from the NCAA about athletes not being employees invalid.

The reasons behind this decision were that since scholarship athletes put in many hours of work in service to their institution, which makes the institution money. This means student-athletes are under the control of the institution, specifically coaches and the athletic director. As a result, they receive financial compensation for their work in the form of their Grant-in-aid athletic scholarships. Just like traditional employees, they provide services for, are under the control of, and receive financial compensation from their employer.

The National Labor Relations Board, however, eventually declined to assert jurisdiction in the Northwestern football case. Because many Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools are state run, the board could not decide whether to allow Division I football players to unionize because they do not have jurisdiction over state-run institutions.

This ruling, however, did not disagree with the earlier ruling that scholarship athletes are employees, it just says they can not decide whether to allow players to form a union.

But what about the NCAA’s belief that student-athletes are students, and therefore can not be employees? This ignores the fact that many students function as both students and employees at their schools all the time. Students who work in the bookstore or at concession stands during sports games are paid by the college. So are the students who give campus tours to prospective students. These students are students, but they are also employees of the institution. They function in both capacities at the same time. There is nothing stopping athletes from also being both students and employees as well.

So if scholarship athletes are employees who receive financial compensation, they are not amateurs, (defined by Google as a person who engages in a pursuit, especially a sport, on an unpaid basis). This refutes the NCAA’s only excuse for exploiting college athletes.

What college athletes then amount to, at least at large Division I football and basketball schools, is underpaid employees. A star player on The Ohio State football team or a Louisville basketball is worth far more to the school than an athletic scholarship’s monetary value.

But as employees, athletes should be able to negotiate financial compensation in addition to their scholarships, as well as the terms of their scholarships. For example, a starting quarterback at Alabama may be able to negotiate to have a lifelong scholarship (meaning he can finish his degree at any time), and a small stipend of $8,000 per year (less than someone making federal minimum wage would likely make in a year), and health insurance paid for by the school. The additional compensation will not be equal among all sports and schools, but that’s capitalism for you. Furthermore, the big schools like Alabama, Notre Dame, and Michigan already spend an absurd amount of money on athletic facilities and resources when compared to the smaller division one school.

To be clear I am not advocating that collegiate athletes be paid like players in the NFL or NBA. They are not exactly professionals, as their first priority is as a student (just like a campus tour guide is not a professional tour guide), but college athletes are still employees, not amateurs. They should receive some of the revenue that they produce in addition to their scholarships, even if that is only a small stipend or a low salary that goes into a trust fund.

The fact is that the NCAA has enough money to give players additional financial compensation. They claim they sent 96% of $871.6 million in revenue over a yearlong period from 2011-2012 directly back to Division I schools.

This would give each of the NCAA’s approximately 345 Division I schools over $2.4 million, which could potentially be used to give athletes stipends. (And don’t forget, colleges generate their own revenue from athletics as well.)

Nevertheless, the NCAA chooses to exploit its athletes instead. It’s time for the NCAA to abandon its ridiculous amateurism defense and pay the underpaid employees who make the group so profitable.