The NCAA is big business.
Since its humble beginnings in 1910, it’s blossomed into a juggernaut; organizing athletic programs, regulating over a thousand conferences and institutions, and generating over a billion dollars annually since 2016. The bulk of that revenue comes from two primary sources: television and marketing rights fees, with ticket sales from its championship games filling out the rest.
Of particular note, the NCAA’s Division I men’s basketball championship is its cash cow. Sports Illustrated notes that in 2017—a year into its new $8.8 billion extension with CBS and Turner—tournament television rights pulled in $821 million, with ticket sales responsible for an additional $130 million. And considering how much revenue they help generate, don’t think that coaches aren’t getting their slice of the pie.
Dabo Sweeney’s penchant for football championship parades is worth $9.3 million annually at Clemson; John Calipari is worth a cool $9.2 million to Kentucky; and Alabama’s Nick Saban, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski each pull in over $7 million a year. However, none of these salaries is the exception, as more than 150 coaches will make more than a million dollars this season.
And coaches aren’t the only ones swimming in cash; conference commissioners like the Big Ten’s Jim Delany and the Pac-12’s Larry Scott each took home over $5 million last season, while NCAA President Mark Emmert made $3.9 million—a 60 percent jump from the $2.4 million he made the previous year. Even athletic directors are cashing out, with an average total compensation of $1.14 million for those lucky enough to work in the ACC.
So with all of this luchini falling from the sky, where do college athletes fit in?
According to the NCAA, it pours hundreds of millions of dollars into funding its sports, providing scholarships to college athletes, and covering the costs of team travel, food, and lodging. Student-athletes also have an $84 million Student Assistance Fund to offset “non-athletics-related costs,” but they must apply in order to access the money and, of course, it isn’t guaranteed.
But none of the above is compensation—it’s an investment.
In becoming student-athletes, players adhere to a grueling schedule of games, practices, and training that generates billions in revenue for their schools but leaves little time to secure a job or socialize. But that’s by design, and no matter how barren their bank account looks, the NCAA also prohibits players from receiving gifts, assistance, or compensation for their image, status, or likeness. This means they can’t sell autographs to pay their bills, like former Georgia tailback Todd Gurley, who was suspended in 2014; they risk punishment for receiving help despite being homeless, like former Boise State defensive tackle Antoine Turner; or they may be deemed ineligible for accepting money to cover moving expenses, like projected No. 1 NBA draft pick James Wiseman.
In 2014, former UConn star Shabazz Napier made headlines when he courageously explained how dire his financial situation was as a student-athlete.
“We do have hungry nights that we don’t have enough money to get food in,” he admitted to reporters. “Sometimes, there’s hungry nights where I’m not able to eat, but I still gotta play up to my capabilities.”
How can a player worth millions of dollars to his school go to bed hungry? That, ladies and gentlemen, is textbook exploitation. But in addition to the financial dynamics of this equation, there’s also a racial component that’s equally as disturbing.
It’s not exactly a secret that black players occupy a significant bulk of team rosters in both football and basketball—easily the NCAA’s most lucrative sports. Out of all the coaches, conference commissioners, athletic directors, and whoever the hell else is making millions of dollars off of free black labor, an overwhelming majority of them are white. And by an overwhelming majority, I mean 80 percent of coaches, 86 percent of conference commissioners, and nearly 70 percent of athletic directors.
Even Friends wasn’t this egregious.
In professional leagues like the NBA and NFL, player empowerment has become far more commonplace in recent years; and mindful of the mistreatment they experienced while in the collegiate ranks, pro players have become far more vocal in advocating for change.
When news of California’s revolutionary Fair Play Act—which goes into effect in 2023 and allows college athletes in California to profit off of their name, image, and likeness—first surfaced, three-time NBA champion LeBron James was one of its biggest proponents.
And he did a lot more than just tweet: In September, James invited Gov. Gavin Newsom onto his hit HBO series The Shop to actually sign the controversial bill into law.
So with the rising tide of public opinion no longer in its favor, the NCAA was clearly perturbed and blasted the bill for “creating confusion” instead of being thankful for it sparking a long-overdue revolution. Yet weeks after its initial dour reaction, the NCAA reversed course entirely and, buckling under mounting pressure, announced that it was officially on board with the “modernization of bylaws and policies” as it relates to compensating student-athletes. While this sounds all well and good, after decades of unrepentant exploitation, this change of heart—completely devoid of specifics, other than an adherence to “a manner consistent with the collegiate model”—has understandably been met with skepticism.
“We don’t trust the NCAA to do right by its athletes,” Arisha Hatch, Vice President and Chief of Campaigns at Color Of Change, told The Root. “We do believe that with public pressure and with legal pressure and new legal precedent, that the NCAA will abide by laws.”
In its efforts to gauge the temperature of likely voters on this matter, Color of Change conducted a nationwide survey and provided its findings to The Root. Among other revelations, Color of Change discovered that 74 percent of those polled believe properly compensating athletes would “turn the tide for Black student-athletes, who make up the vast majority of the highest-revenue sports of football and basketball.”
“Our poll shows that the NCAA is on the wrong side of public opinion. The public overwhelmingly supports collegiate athletes’ fight for economic fairness and opportunity,” Hatch said. “All players are hurt by the NCAA’s stranglehold on profits, but Black players, who make the most money for the league, its sponsors and participating schools are disproportionately shut out of financial reward.”
Color of Change has also been one of many groups that have been vigilant in fighting for the financial freedom of black student-athletes through petitions, billboards, letters, conversations with the NCAA, and phone calls demanding lawmakers take action. They’re also pushing for federal legislation to address this issue—and it’s exactly the type of pressure and accountability required to finally allow student-athletes, who are worth millions of dollars to their respective schools, to reap the financial rewards of their complimentary labor.
“We can’t leave it up to the NCAA to create their rules in a game that it never really wanted to play, and in a game that it continues to profit from,” Hatch said. “A billion-dollar association doesn’t transform from this huge capitalistic behemoth into a progressive organization overnight. We want to be clear that we won’t accept arbitrary limitations and that we will continue to push this fight forward.”