As the 2020 presidential campaign kicks off, a slew of issues have already come to the forefront, including immigration, income inequality, the future of health care, reparations, and climate change. But, as another March Madness wraps up, it’s time for the crowded field of candidates to add another issue to their platforms: Ending NCAA amateurism.
During this year’s men’s basketball tournament, the NCAA earned almost $800 million from television rights alone. Coaches, schools, and conferences received millions of additional dollars worth of bonuses. And the athletes that actually played in those games earned absolutely no money. This might sound like a niche problem that only impacts a handful of the most talented student-athletes in the world — student-athletes that one would assume have better-than-even chance of turning pro, and raking in the millions. But this is not the case.
Every year, there are more than 460,000 student-athletes competing in 24 NCAA-sanctioned sports. Thirty-six percent of all student-athletes are people-of-color, and in the major revenue-generating sports, the student-athletes are disproportionately black: football is 48 percent black, men’s basketball is 56 percent black, and women’s basketball is 47 percent black. As their predominately white and male coaches and administrators continue to get richer, these athletes are cut out from earning a fair share.
It is an issue of inequity, and at this point, political pressure is the only thing that is going to fix it.
One candidate is already out in front on this issue. Andrew Yang — yes, the candidate who is running on a platform of universal basic income — lists “NCAA should pay athletes” as one of the tenets of his platform.
“We should create a new type of college athlete—’Performer athlete’—who is entitled to market-based compensation,” Yang says on his website. “This would not affect the status of any other student-athletes nor the tax-exempt status of the university. However, each university with a ‘Performer athlete’ would be required to start an affiliated taxable for-profit entity through which both corporate sponsorships and Performer-athlete salaries would flow.”
But this isn’t just a fringe issue parroted by a long-shot presidential candidate. Currently, there is a bipartisan push in Congress to address this issue. Three weeks ago, Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) introduced the Student-Athlete Equity Act, a bill that aims to modify the tax code to remove the current rule that prevents student-athletes from using or being compensated for the use of their name, image, and likeness.
“A lot of these student-athletes come from impoverished communities, and there is a lot of money made on the backs of these young men and women. And these students, they can fight in the war, but they can’t have any access to their image or likeness,” Walker told ThinkProgress.
“I say, if you see injustice and you don’t do something about it, I think, shame on you. It doesn’t mean there aren’t other battles to fight.”
A couple of weeks after Walker unveiled his bill in the House, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) released a report, which highlighted, among other things, the fact that in the last 15 years, the revenue for college athletics has more than tripled to a $14.1 billion high.
“Under the current system, students in big-time athletic programs are shortchanged on their education as the college sports machine demands more of their time and more pressure to win,” Murphy said. “Meanwhile, coaches, universities, broadcasters, and even shoe companies are raking in the cash and sending a relatively small percentage of the money to students in the form of scholarships. The NCAA needs to come up with a way to compensate student-athletes, at least in the sports that demand the most time and make the most money. It’s an issue of fairness. It’s an issue of civil rights.”
Murphy has not yet proposed his own bill, but he says he will continue to release reports that dig into the impact of amateurism, and will keep loudly calling for the NCAA to pay its athletes.
“Is there an easy solution? No. But the NCAA has created a complicated system of sponsorship and broadcast rights by which lots of adults get rich,” Murphy said. “They can figure out a way to get a percentage of that money to the students who are kept poor by a system that is designed to make lots of people rich except for the kids.”
Even as the end of amateurism gains momentum on the federal level, states have begun to take up this issue as well. In California, for example, state Senate majority whip Nancy Skinner (D) has put forth Senate Bill 206, also known as the Fair Pay to Play Act, which would allow student-athletes in California to earn money through corporate sponsorships, in a fashion similar to the amateur athletes who compete in the Olympic Games.
The truth is, ending amateurism isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s an increasingly popular position as well. It turns out, despite the NCAA claiming that if players were getting paid, nobody would want to watch college sports, this — shockingly! — is not the case. As SUNY Buffalo history professor Patrick F. McDevitt pointed out in HuffPost this time last year, the logic doesn’t track: “Surely, if people were put off by the idea of paying college athletes, then Division III schools (which do not offer scholarships, let alone give their players stipends) would have the largest fan bases and Division I schools caught funneling money to their star players would lose fans in the wake of pay-for-play scandals.”
Nothing’s changed in a year’s time. Last year, a big FBI investigation unveiled Adidas executives and agents helping facilitate payments to athletes if they agreed to go to certain Adidas-sponsored schools. This year, during March Madness, lawyer Michael Avenatti tried to make a big splash by claiming he had evidence that Nike paid families of top college basketball recruits. The news barely caused a ripple. And, despite all of this being public knowledge, ratings for March Madness have been just fine.
The public is ready for amateurism to end. The players are deserving of their due. The fans will cheer, no matter what. But unless the NCAA’s hand is forced, nothing about the current system is ever going to change. That’s why it’s crucial for the people who are running for the most powerful role in our nation to speak up and propose solutions to change the status quo.
Is this the most pressing problem facing society? Of course not. But, it is an injustice. And it can be fixed with just a little leadership.