Most of us bridle at the very thought — after all, college is a place that’s supposed to be safe from the rampant commercialism of pro sports. These kids are students as well as athletes, amateurs who compete in a system that’s more pure and noble than their counterparts in the pros. Right?
Not so, says Baltimore local Taylor Branch in a scathing new article in the Atlantic. “Two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence — ‘amateurism’ and the ‘student-athlete’ — are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes,” Branch asserts.
College athletics is big money these days, thanks to television licensing, merchandise sales, stadium ads, and shoe deals. Big football schools (Texas, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Penn) earn as much as $80 million a year from their teams. The NCAA is “a spectacularly profitable cartel,” according to Branch. But if any of the players are caught actually profiting from their work, they get suspended, fined, or banned outright. Meanwhile, universities and corporations reap millions of dollars. And no one pretends that student athletes are getting much of an education, either.
It seems hard to justify the disparity: players (or their likenesses) show up on video games, on ESPNU, on giant billboards… and college players both current and former don’t get any money from it at all. Students from poor families earn their schools millions, and can’t afford to fly home to see their parents. The NCAA even fights against injured student athletes who file workmen’s comp insurance claims.
The hypocrisy is rampant: “At the start of the 2010 football season, A. J. Green, a wide receiver at Georgia, confessed that he’d sold his own jersey from the Independence Bowl the year before, to raise cash for a spring-break vacation. The NCAA sentenced Green to a four-game suspension for violating his amateur status with the illicit profit generated by selling the shirt off his own back. While he served the suspension, the Georgia Bulldogs store continued legally selling replicas of Green’s No. 8 jersey for $39.95 and up,” Branch notes.
Domonique Foxworth, a Raven who used to play for the University of Maryland, put it bluntly: “Money surrounds college sports, and every player knows those millions are floating around only because of the 18-to-22-year-olds.” But only a small percentage of those players will end up as high-earning pro athletes.
Should these players have a right to some of the profits they’ve generated? Or would monetizing college sports just make them even more crassly commercial? It’s hard to think of a good solution here, but Branch makes a persuasive argument that the current system isn’t working.