Within days, March Madness will take over the United States. Sixty-eight teams will compete in the NCAA Basketball Championship—one of the most thrilling tournaments in college sports. But some people are calling for an end to the madness, specifically the “exploitation” of the athletes.
This “exploitation” takes many forms. First, the athletes are completely unpaid – in fact, accepting any payment or gifts renders them ineligible. Yet, the NCAA’s football and basketball programs alone generate over $6 billion in annual revenue! At that rate, experts estimate that the average Duke University basketball player deserves $1,025,656/year. But instead, the money funds multi-million dollar contracts for coaches, athletic directors, and NCAA executives (Alabama’s head football coach made $7.1 million in 2014).
Such “unpaid labor” becomes more egregious when you consider the athletes’ work ethic. According to a 2011 NCAA survey, elite college athletes spend an average of 43.3 hours/week on their sport including practices, games, and travel. They also average 38 hours/week on academics, bringing their total workweek to 81 hours! This far exceeds many full-jobs and leaves little—if any—time for paid work.
As a further blow, most athletes have major expenses (tuition, accommodations, food etc). After all, only the most talented athletes win a full scholarship….and even then, they fall short $3000. Other athletes receive an average scholarship of $10,400 or nothing at all. Unfortunately, tapping trust funds is rarely an option, as many college athletes “come from poverty-stricken communities”. Consequently, according to the National College Players Association (NCPA), as astonishing 86% of college athletes live below the poverty line.
Of course, collegiate sports also take a toll on athletes’ bodies (not just their bank accounts). According to the New York Post, “nearly all who play football — and, increasingly, basketball, baseball and other sports — will experience wear and tear on their bodies that they may not have anticipated”. This includes brain injuries (from concussions), shattered bones, worn-out joints, and torn muscles, ligaments and tendons. Indeed, athletes “risk life-altering injuries [or death] every time they go on the field or court”.
In its defence, the NCAA notes that member schools give over $2.7 billion in athletic scholarships to 150,000 students annually. Some also provide tutoring and life skill training.
The NCAA itself offers funds for student assistance, academic enhancement, and training. It provides paid internships at its Indianapolis headquarters. It finances research into player wellness and safety. And for those unlucky athletes who sustain a catastrophic injury during play, the NCAA sponsors an insurance program.
But perhaps most importantly, in its view, the NCAA provides “opportunities and experiences“. By funding championships in 24 sports, the NCAA give players the exposure needed to “parlay their college records into offers from professional sports teams” (though this benefits only 1.2% of men’s basketball players and 1.6% of football players). The NCAA also enables athletes to play the sports they love and “enhance their overall college experience“.
As a former NCAA athlete, I agree that playing softball was greatly enriching. Some of my best college memories are of practicing at sunrise, traveling to Florida for spring training, and clinching the conference championship. But I can also attest to the financial struggles, long hours, and injuries of college athletes. For this reason, I think we must “go to bat” for athlete rights and interests.
To get the ball rolling, groups have advanced some creative ideas. The NCPA, among other things, has proposed that the NCAA use its $11 billion contract with CBS to provide “truly full” athletic scholarships. The money could also cover graduation bonuses to athletes who complete their degrees. Others have called for reduced contact during practices and an NCAA fund that athletes could access long after college, “when their injuries come back to bite them”. Finally, a group of Northwestern University football players (unsuccessfully) petitioned for the right to unionize and collectively bargain.