Foul play: US colleges exploit athletes, and excuses don’t wash any more
It's a billion-dollar business in which coaches are richly rewarded, and it gets away with not paying any of its players
There are certain aspects of American sport that can be hard to get your head around as an outsider. The enduring appeal of Nascar for starters. Then you have the contradiction of the world’s most capitalist society employing socialistic principles such as salary caps, a draft system and no relegation within all its major team sports.
More perplexing still is how the big American colleges can continue to get away without paying their athletes.
Once upon a time – maybe about a century ago – their argument held some weight. Athletes would receive their education free through scholarships without the all-consuming distraction of professional sport. But times change. College sport in the US is now a billion-dollar business and is professional in every sense bar the payment of its athletes.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the body that runs college sports, generated $1.06bn in revenue in the school year from September 2016 until August 2017. Broadcaster CBS has paid $8.8bn to cover the “March Madness” basketball tournament through to 2032. There are similar gargantuan sums involved in college American football.
The athletes, upon whose backs the industry is built, get nothing.
A select few, such as Duke basketball star Zion Williamson, will make millions in the National Football League and National Basketball Association, but according to the NCAA’s own estimates, only about 1.6% of its athletes will make it as professionals. The other 98.4% will have to be content with a degree despite generating billions.
That is exploitation.
There is a degree of “shamateurism”, as there was before rugby union went professional, with colleges dangling sweeteners towards the brightest prospects. The actual payment of athletes, though, is strictly prohibited and zealously enforced.
Earlier this year, the NCAA banned Kansas basketball player Silvio de Sousa for two seasons after his guardian received money from an agent without his knowledge.
Obviously, a lot of people get rich out of this, even if the colleges are technically public institutions. There were 28 athletic departments that made more than $100m in revenue in 2015-16, while American football coaches are paid on a par with their NFL equivalents. In college basketball, Duke head coach Mike Krzyewski made $8.89m in 2018.
Hence this is a status quo that the NCAA and the colleges are desperate to protect, but cracks in the edifice are starting to appear.
Last Friday, Californian judge Claudia Wilken ruled that the NCAA broke antitrust rules by capping the amount it offered in scholarships. She was disparaging of many of the NCAA’s arguments. “The rules that permit, limit or forbid student-athlete compensation and benefits do not follow any coherent definition of amateurism,” she said. “The only common thread underlying all forms and amounts of currently permissible compensation is that the NCAA has decided to allow it.”
Yet, even though Wilken found in favour of the action brought by some former college athletes, she stopped short of ruling that they should be paid for their labour. Instead, they will be entitled to more education-related benefits such as laptops and costs towards internships.
This is the second time the NCAA has been found to have violated antitrust laws. Yet while it has lost the battles, it is still winning the war, for the moment at least.
Its arguments that the national appeal of college sports lies within its amateurism is starting to wear thin in the wider court of public opinion. It is particularly hard to escape the historical imagery of old white men getting rich off the labour of a largely African-American cohort. Only in America.
– © The Daily Telegraph