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The NCAA’s Slaves

Southern plantation owners were more enlightened.

By 4.6.09

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About 19 million people are expected to watch the NCAA men's basketball championship game tonight. For the privilege of broadcasting the tournament, one of the greatest sporting events in the world, CBS has agreed to pay the National Collegiate Athletic Association $6 billion from 2002 through 2013. Each of the schools with a team in the final game will take home a cool million dollars. On top of that, each institution stands to rake in millions upon millions of dollars from sales of licensed products and contracts with sporting goods suppliers. How much of those millions will the athletes get to take home? None. 

The NCAA and its member institutions practice what can best be described as a modern form of slavery. They feed, house (and ostensibly educate) young men and women in exchange for the services of their labor. It is true that these young laborers, whom the NCAA likes to call "student-athletes," could walk away at any time. But in doing so most of them would forego any chance of working their way up to professional or Olympic status in the sport of their choice. To gain the training and exposure necessary to make it to the next level, most of them must play by the NCAA's rules. And those rules require athletes to sign over to the NCAA all rights to profit financially from their athletic performances as long as they are students. 

According to the NCAA's own data, only 1.2 percent of the nation's more than 16,500 men's college basketball players will go on to play professionally. There are 65 teams in the men's basketball tournament. The NCAA allows each Division 1 team 13 scholarships. That makes 845 players, almost all of whom, despite their great talent, will never earn a dime from playing the game basketball -- while the NCAA, its member institutions, and the athletic conferences will earn billions from the games those kids play. 

The NCAA insists that it provides these players with something worth more than cash -- an education. But the dollar value of the athletic performances these players put on vastly exceeds the value of their scholarships. The NCAA estimates that at a public college or university the average full athletic scholarship is just under $14,000. For out-of-state students, it's $24,000. At private schools it's $32,000. 

Using those numbers, consider college basketball's 2008 national player of the year, UNC senior Tyler Hansbrough. As an out-of-state student, he would have received somewhere around $100,000 in scholarship aid for his four years playing basketball for the University of North Carolina. This year's Final Four is Hansbrough's second. How much would his share of television royalties, jersey, poster and T-shirt sales, etc. be if the University of North Carolina, the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the NCAA didn't keep it all? Certainly more than $100,000. But that is not all Hansbrough forfeits. NCAA rules also forbid him and all other athletes from trading on their own celebrity. 

It is easy to understand why the NCAA would ban professional athletes from playing college sports. Forbidding schools from hiring ringers, as Groucho Marx's Professor Wagstaff did in the film Horse Feathers, does ensure a form of athletic integrity for the college game. But why does the NCAA ban students from making some money on the side from their admittedly brief celebrity? 

NCAA rules on amateurism allow athletes to hold regular college jobs. Tyler Hansbrough could deliver pizzas and still keep his eligibility. But if he collects "any remuneration for value or utility that the student-athlete may have for the employer because of the publicity, reputation, fame or personal following that he or she has obtained because of athletics ability," he would be banned from playing college basketball. 

So "student-athletes" may not do a commercial for the local car dealer or endorse Gatorade. That Guitar Hero: Metallica ad with NCAA coaches Roy Williams, Rick Pitino, Bobby Knight, and Coach K dancing in their boxers? Why can't it feature 2009 Player of the Year Blake Griffin? How would allowing him to endorse a video game make his basketball playing impure? 

It is hard to see how student product endorsements would compromise the integrity of the athletic competitions in which the students participate. Could such contracts corrupt a student? Perhaps. But the NCAA even forbids students from avoiding such potential corruption through self-marketing. 

NCAA Rule 12.4.4 states: "A student-athlete may establish his or her own business, provided the student-athlete's name, photograph, appearance or athletics reputation are not used to promote the business." To see why the NCAA might want such a rule, consider that last month the NCAA launched its own photo store on NCAA.com. There, you can buy a picture of your favorite player, and the NCAA doesn't have to give the student a dime of the profits. If the student had his own website from which he could sell his posters, photos, T-shirts, and trading cards, the NCAA and its member institutions would lose a sizeable portion of revenue. At UNC's student stores, you can buy a T-shirt with Tyler Hansbrough's image on the front, or a jersey with his name on the back. And Hansbrough receives none of the profits. 

Even some Southern plantation owners allowed slaves to earn extra cash through self-employment. The NCAA is not so enlightened. 

NCAA and college officials profess great concern over athlete graduation rates. Yet they refuse to make the one change that would guarantee that more "student-athletes" stick around for four years: let the athletes profit from their athletic performances or the fame derived from them. 

The NCAA constitution states: "Student-athletes shall be amateurs in an intercollegiate sport, and their participation should be motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental and social benefits to be derived. Student participation in intercollegiate athletics is an avocation, and student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises." 

The constitution, however, says nothing about exploitation by non-profit enterprises. The NCAA reserves for itself and its member institutions the exclusive right to exploit "student-athletes." Because, you know, we wouldn't want the participants in a multi-billion-dollar sporting enterprise to be tainted by that awful thing called profit.

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About the Author

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.