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What this means is the National Collegiate Athletic Association, a membership organization representing hundreds of institutions of higher education and committed to an educational model of sport, will be arguing against permitting colleges to increase spending on education for athletes in football and men’s and women’s basketball. The NCAA’s rebuttal brief to the Supreme Court argues that “these new allowances [up to $6,000 in academic or graduation awards or incentives] are indistinguishable from professional salaries … [this] is pay-for-play, pure and simple.”
The athletes in question make up the core of higher ed’s entertainment enterprise. Their performances, broadcast nationally on TV, also sell the idea of college to prospective students and their families. The demands and expectations placed on them mirror those of NFL, NBA, and WNBA players. But to the NCAA, admitting that these athletes face more challenges in balancing their academic and athletic roles and responsibilities might cause the whole amateurism house of cards to collapse.
To make matters even more ironic, the NCAA is using funds generated by March Madness to fight this case all the way to the nation’s highest court. The upshot of all this? Collegiate basketball players are laboring to fund the legal argument that they should not be entitled to more educational benefits.
Those of us who work in higher ed must not ignore this farcical state of affairs. If you work at an institution that competes in the NCAA, as I do, the NCAA is making this argument on behalf of our colleges. Compounding the absurdity and injustice of the situation, about half of the athletes in those Division I sports are Black. These athletes’ performances are the main generators of the billions of dollars that flow through American college sports each year.
They are not, however, graduating at the same rates as are their mostly white peers in non-revenue-generating sports. Take the nation’s top 65 colleges that make up the Power Five conferences — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC. According to 2018 research by Shaun Harper, director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, Black men made up 2.4 percent of the undergraduate population at these colleges but 55 percent of their football teams and 56 percent of their men’s basketball teams. Such athletes have only a 55-percent graduation rate, compared with 69 percent for all athletes and 76 percent for all students. These are significant, inexcusable graduation gaps.
And so Alston should be a great corrective — a step to remedy a situation in which our colleges are currently failing. By fighting Alston, the NCAA and its member institutions — our colleges — are committing to continue to undervalue Black students.
Unlike colleges’ increased spending on athletes’ academic-performance centers and tutors, giving athletes money they could directly spend on education would empower them and open doors. In addition to improving educational outcomes, increasing such benefits would enhance the comparatively inferior academic experiences of revenue-sport athletes. A football player who had not previously considered a semester or spring-break study-abroad trip because of cost concerns or a culture that discourages missing practice might now feel empowered to sign up. A basketball player who aspires to become a doctor could spend the funds on the relevant additional coursework, test prep, and medical-school applications.
American higher ed has been working unbelievably hard to not do the right thing.
When students enjoy the power and resources to make their own educational choices, they get excited about learning. And considering that coaches and administrators earn bonuses for teams’ academic performances, exactly why shouldn’t the athletes who are doing that performing also benefit?
All of this — the racially disparate educational experiences and the refusal to consider spending more on the athletes’ educations in a way that gives the money directly to them — carries a damning message. It suggests colleges do not care about the academic outcomes of their Black star athletes, regardless of what they say on brochures or recruiting trips. The NCAA’s fight in the Alston case only brings this revenue-first, mission-second thinking into sharper focus.
This is an entertainment industry, and the NCAA and its member colleges have long enjoyed having it both ways: They celebrate the educational benefits of participation in college sports (you know those ads, “Just about all of us go pro in something other than sports!”), and then administer college sports in a ruthlessly professional manner. Moreover, the advertising elides the professional reality of big-time college sports: NCAA data suggest that more than half of draft-eligible Division I men’s basketball players do in fact turn professional (the vast majority of them internationally or in the NBA’s G-League), as do 21 percent of Division I women’s basketball players.
A central line of the NCAA’s argument in Alston is that if college sports are indistinguishable from professional sports, fans will no longer care to watch. If you have tuned in to the tournaments this month, you most certainly have seen a wide array of corporate sponsors and advertisements. CBS and Turner Sports pay about $800 million annually for the broadcast rights to the men’s tournament. Michigan State University recently sold the presenting rights to its men’s basketball team, and announced that it would now be called the “Michigan State Spartans presented by Rocket Mortgage.” That corporate sponsors like Rocket Mortgage are increasingly appearing as team sponsors — and in increasingly absurd ways — doesn’t seem to bother the association.
Over just the last 20 years, college-sports revenue has gone from roughly $4 billion a year to $14 billion a year. The result has been coaching-salary escalations, athletics-department administrative bloating, and the newest wave of the competitive facilities arms race. If the status quo prevails, and the industry remains predicated on “amateurism,” we may run out of places for all that money to go. We’ve already seen athletics departments build lazy rivers, indoor slides, airline-designed sleep pods in locker rooms, and flight simulators. What on earth could be next?
How do the NCAA and its colleges justify this line of argument? NCAA lawyers have long pointed to a passage in Justice John Paul Stevens’s Board of Regents decision, in 1984, that busted the NCAA’s TV monopoly, allowing colleges and conferences to negotiate (and enjoy the revenues of) their own TV contracts. In the passage (one that many legal scholars and the plaintiffs consider to be dicta), Stevens wrote that NCAA colleges should be able to uphold the “revered tradition of amateurism in college sports” that makes it distinctive from professional sports. Stevens continued: “In order to preserve the character and quality of the ‘product,’ athletes must not be paid, must be required to attend class, and the like.”
Stevens, writing in 1984, could not have anticipated that by 2021 we would have colleges with annual sports revenues over $200 million and coaches making $10 million a year. But the NCAA’s legal team has ignored that shift and pivoted to an implausible argument against increased athlete compensation based on fans’ interest, which supposedly would fade if athletes were paid.
American higher ed has been working unbelievably hard to not do the right thing. As the Alston argument’s coincidence with March Madness highlights, we use disproportionately Black football and basketball teams to sell our universities to mostly white prospective students, and then fight any increase in benefits to those very same athletes, whose equal educational opportunities we work to deny. It’s time to end this unfair system; and while admirably brave athletes have been calling it out in Indianapolis and San Antonio with the #NotNCAAProperty tag, it shouldn’t be left to athletes to demand a better deal. Educators must step up and call out a system that clearly could better serve athletes. With our varied academic expertise, we are also the thinkers who could be working to build a better model.