College basketball players watch the coach roaming the sidelines in his $1,500-custom-made suit. They read about his $500,000 salary and $250,000 perk from a sneaker deal. They watch the schools sell jerseys (and T-shirts) with the players’ numbers on them. They see the athletic director and NCAA officials getting rich and you wonder why they might ask: hey where’s my share? What am I, a pack mule? (Parent 2004, p. 8)
The stands convulse with feverous emotion and the rickety pews vibrate with the thunder of thousands of trampling feet. They perform a frenzied dance as they stand, jump and gesticulate their bodies with vigorous energy. From afar they appear a unified collage; each spectator, each piece of clothing adhering to blue and white conformity. A bizarre, devilish mascot plays conductor, orchestrating their madness into some demonic possession ritual. Foam froths from their open mouths as they will their team on. And all this is before the game has even begun. This is the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, better known as March Madness, at its most sweltering moment. And then, as soon as the furore of the crowd has reached breaking point, the commencement whistle is blown, and the game begins; or better said, the curtains open upon a choreographed and well-rehearsed theft.
The undeniable truth of modern sports is that each has been irrevocably affected by its financial character. That is to say, as it generates increasingly vast sums of money, it has become an ‘industry’ whose primary pursuit and focus are less concerned with physical endurance and perfection, and instead with ‘financial profits.’ Nowhere is this more true and evident than in North America, where the sports industry is expected to generate over $60 billion in revenue this year alone. With the National Football League (NFL), Major Baseball League (NBL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) being the three largest contributors, sports has become endemically infiltrated by money. From players and coaches receiving unprecedented contracts worth millions - which often pale in comparison to their endorsement deals - to the team owner oligarchs, it can no longer be said that sports is just a game.
‘Big money’ is not only impacted professional sports leagues, but has also come to play a defining role in amateur sports leagues, as these too now generate vast sums of money. College sports generated a record $10 billion in annual revenue during its 2014 fiscal year, a record that is set to increase this year. This is certainly noteworthy, and places the colleges themselves at the centre of this industry. As the regulating body for college sports in the United States and Canada, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) oversees more than 1,000 institutions that compete against one another in various sporting disciplines. Formed in 1910 on the back of the the Intercollegiate Athletic Association, it represents an estimated 400,000 student athletes.
In past years, increasing focus has been placed on the fact that whilst college athletic leagues in the United States amass large sums of money, the athletes themselves do not receive financial compensation for their ‘work.’ This increased focus is due to several factors, including the current economic climate, the ever-increasing debts incurred by students, increased public access to the annual budgets of many higher learning institutions, and also the multi-million dollar salaries earnt by certain colleges’ sports coaches. To the casual observer, given the huge sums of money that are generated by certain college sports programs, it would seem only straight-forward and fair that the players themselves be paid or compensated somehow. Moreover, one might also ask, how can an institution whose primary purpose is the development of its students’ intellectual life simultaneously operate as an agency to promote business on an extensive commercial basis? The debate belies a far more complex and encompassing conflict, one that has both theoretical and pragmatic facets, and moreover has implications for college education throughout the States. Undeniably, there is an endemic dysfunction at the core of higher education funding, as wave after wave of young adults leave college with debilitating debts. The purview of this article, however, will be limited to two key questions: can scholarships be considered proper compensation for student athletes; and are colleges meeting their educational responsibilities to these student athletes? Whilst these questions could be applied to any of the major sports in the States, this article will utilise college basketball as an example, as this presents an ideal illustration of the death of the game.
Last year, over fifty colleges in the States reported annual revenues that exceeded $50 million1 - of which sports revenue was a significant component. Given that many student-athletes have increasingly voiced the hardship and reality that many of them face - despite scholarships - as a consequence of living under the poverty line, we must look anew at the problem. A 2011 report entitled “The Price of Poverty in Big Time College Sports” confirmed that 85 percent of college athletes on scholarships live below the poverty line. The scholarship as ‘fair compensation debate’ is not a new debate; instead it is one that has raged on for several decades, dating back to 1948, when the NCAA adopted the “Sanity Code” which limited financial aid for athletes to tuition and fees, and required that aid otherwise be given based on need. Whilst the tension between amateurism, education and professionalism predates the Sanity Code, the remnants of that tension are still at the core of today’s debate. Granted, not all college sports programs make a profit - far from it, in fact - however, those that do bare a responsibility to fairly compensate their student athletes.
The essential problem remains that whilst the NCAA operates in a purely capitalistic fashion - which is perfectly suited to the professional sports industry - by promoting and enforcing an amateuristic approach to college athletics, it nonetheless is witness and accomplice to a multi-million dollar enterprise. These competing, and contradictory, values have led many college athletes in big time football and basketball programs to question the status quo of the present system.
Where is the money going?
True to the character of a profit-orientated industry, the wealth garnered by college sports is not distributed evenly. College sports revenues are passed along to NCAA executives, athletic directors and coaches in the form of salaries. Teams that participate at the top level of the college game benefit from lucrative broadcasting deals, merchandising revenues, and expanded brand recognition, all of which enable these colleges to hire more expensive coaches and pursue potential future stars more aggressively, thereby assuring their competitive stance and bolstering their chances of earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four. According to USA Today, coaches of the 68 teams that made the NCAA Final Four in 2012 made an average salary of $1.4 million. In addition, some of these also received lucrative bonuses for advancing to the tournament’s final rounds. The highest paid public employee in 40 of the 50 U.S. states is the state university's head American football or basketball coach. Given the wide range of teams that are spread across several divisions (and the notoriety of each team), the average college basketball coach’s earnings vary considerably. Whilst Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, for example, made about $4.7 million a year, the average salary for coaches is much lower than that and is based on the level of competition, the school’s location and other factors such as the athletic department’s budget. The median salary for basketball coaches at all levels was $76,640, according to 2011-12 data from HigherEdJobs.com. What quickly emerges is an intensely unbalanced distribution of salaries, as coaches and interested parties share in the profits, whilst the players themselves receive only crumbs.
There are those who argue that whilst players are not paid a salary, the scholarships they are offered constitute a compensation of sorts. The NCAA homepage proudly boasts that “more than $2.7 billion in athletic scholarships is distributed each year along with access to medical care, academic support services and first-class training opportunities.” Their position is that the contractual agreement between the student athlete and the college means that whilst the college assumes responsibility for the student’s tuition fees, meal plans, and boarding costs, the athlete is provided with the opportunity to earn a degree, engage in college life, and most importantly train their bodies to become the best athletes they can be. However, economist Richard Sheehan points out that, based on a workload of 1,000 hours per year and an average scholarship value, the basic hourly wage of a college basketball player is $6.82, which is notably less than the national minimum wage. Coaches meanwhile enjoy a wage that ranges from $250 to $647 per hour. Moreover, according to a recent study: “the average scholarship shortfall (out-of-pocket expenses) for each full scholarship athlete was approximately $3,222 per player during the 2010-11 school year...and that the room and board provisions in a full scholarship leave 85 percent of players living on campus and 86 percent of players living off campus living below the federal poverty line.” This study undermines the central tenant of the NCAA argument as it shows that even when players do receive compensation through scholarships, these fall far short of ‘fair compensation’ in monetary value.
A typical college basketball player’s sporting routine involves over 8 per day of committed exercise. Assuming that he obeys the human necessity for sleep (8 hours) and eating (2 hours) then that leaves him with 6 hours per day to dedicate to his academic studies. The core thesis of this article argues that there is an inherent conflict of interests when institutions who are heavily involved in multi-million sports programs are concurrently charged with providing a college education to our young. How can these “concentrate their attention on securing teams that win, without impairing the sincerity and vigour of its intellectual purpose?” For sure, the NCAA will point to those rare cases when exceptionally talented individuals have achieved success in both worlds. However, this will forever remain the exception and not the rule as long as the system is geared to favour sporting success over academic success. For every exceptional case study highlighted by the NCAA, there are hundreds of youths who leave college without receiving an honest and proper education. I would argue that the current predicament amounts to theft, both financial and intellectual. This crime is perpetuated by athletic directors and coaches, and not only ensures the sustained poverty for many of the athletes who provide their labour, but also ensures that they are robbed of a proper education.
Despite the increasing furore of the debate, the NCAA and the colleges have remained steadfast in their position, and given the huge profits earned by the few beneficiaries of the system - who also happen to be its architects - this will likely remain status quo for the immediate future. And so, the next time you find yourself spectator to a college basketball (or other) game, remember the toll that is being exacted. Perhaps then you will realise that it is not just a game: for as long as crowds continue to applaud and cheer their teams on, oblivious to the fact that they too are part of this morally corrupt system that is failing our young and robbing them of a proper education whilst mocking them with crumbs of compensation, well then, the system will endure.
1Five colleges reported annual revenues that exceed $100 million.