Participation in sports such as basketball, American football, soccer, track & field on a college level has recently ignited issues which have caused controversy both in the United States and across the world. Players are most commonly 18-19 years old when they accept scholarships to play these sports at some of the world’s top universities, predominantly within America.
The scholarship gives the student-athletes free college tuition, and provides them with equipment and facilities, but does not offer or allow any sort of income. It is this issue of whether these student-athletes should be able to receive income during their stay at college which has become increasingly debated.
Paying college athletes has recently gained widespread consensus since the release of a new report slamming the NCAA. The NCAA is the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The purpose of the NCAA is to regulate competition in a fair, safe, reasonable and sportsmanlike way, and to help athletes find a place at universities.
Against the billion-dollar backdrop of the March Madness in 2019, which is a world-renowned sports tournament, there was a scandal involving the black market for star college basketball recruits. This raised the question about whether athletes should be paid, and the debate has now reached Capitol Hill. There was a time when nobody questioned whether college athletes should be paid… this was because universities did not want to divide the student-athletes from the actual student body. It was believed that if student-athletes were paid then they would be seen as peripheral and not as real students.
However, it is almost impossible for student athletes to be seen as regular students because their games are viewed by hundreds of millions of fans worldwide. Some players already have celebrity status, and they are often only a few months away from playing their sport at the highest possible level. Basketball legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar talked about his college experience and said “Our efforts earned millions of dollars for the university, both in cash and in recruiting advertisement to attract new students. But I was generally too poor to do anything but study, practice and play.
The little spending money I managed to scrape together was earned on summer jobs. That money had to get me through the whole academic year. It was frustrating to win championship after championship every year, hear thousands chant my name, and then go to my bedroom to count my change so I could buy a burger.”
People are calling on the NCAA to “fairly compensate” athletes for their labour. In recent times there has been criticism of the $14 billion-a-year campus sports industry for spending more on coach salaries than player scholarships, concluding that the system enriches “broadcasters, apparel companies, and athletic departments” at the expense of athletes.
The revenue collected by college sports programs rose from $4 billion in 2003 to $14 billion in 2018. The 25 highest-paid football and men’s basketball coaches earn an average annual salary of $5.2 million and $4.5 million. Everybody is getting rich off an incredibly profitable industry… except for the athletes. Is free tuition a reasonable payoff for these sportsmen, who are potentially garnering publicity for their college? How about the direct revenue from sporting tickets, merchandise and advertising?
Public opinion on this issue is divided. One reason for this division, is race. Most of the people who oppose pay for play are white ;and most African Americans support it. 61% of African Americans believe college athletes should be paid whereas 26% of white Americans believe college athletes should be paid. This is because a disproportionately large percentage of college basketball and football players are African American. This means debates over NCAA compensation are implicitly debates about race.
The NCAA has spent much of the past decade fighting litigation from current and former student-athletes seeking compensation for their contributions in revenue-generating sports, with one sociologist calling the uprising “the civil rights movement of our times.” Basketball and football generate the most income to the NCAA, and a large percentage of players at Division I schools are African American. Their families, and the rest of the African-American community don’t want to continue the same cycle of having their efforts exploited while others profit.
Ultimately, there are more people who oppose pay for play. However, the majority of these people are white, and there are more white people in America, than African American people. Unfortunately, there is also a long history of white Americans opposing political reforms that would benefit African Americans. Should the rule against paying college athletes remain? No. Legislation simply hasn’t caught up with public opinion yet. Just as the laws around slavery changed over time, and civil rights laws changed over time, no doubt the pay for play laws will change as well.