Dear Mr. Mark Emmert,
To the credit of the NCAA, the quality of competition in college sports has been improving. Not only have there been perennial Cinderella teams in the March madness basketball tournament, but there has also been a significant decrease in the competition gap between larger and smaller schools. In addition, the NCAA home page boasts record numbers for graduating student athletes. The 82 percent graduation rate for student athletes surpasses the rate for regular college students. For these recent developments, all college sports fans around the nation thank you and the NCAA.
The NCAA, however, has opposed changes that would benefit and more fairly compensate student athletes. While many receive athletic scholarships that provide a free education, not all are blessed with this opportunity. In addition, the athletic scholarships do not cover all expenses. College athletes from financially unstable families often struggle to meet personal needs. Being on a sports team is indeed a privilege, but it is also a commitment. Unlike academic scholarships, those on athletic scholarships must commit to what often resembles a full-time job in addition to their academic studies. For example, college football athletes are generally required to devote forty-three hours a week (three more hours than the typical American work week) to their craft. At the same time, these college athletes must still keep up with their classes and coursework in order to meet the required academic standard. College athletes need to be sufficiently compensated for this commitment. No student athlete should have to resort to breaking NCAA rules to obtain money to pay expenses. I urge you, Mr. Emmert, to revise the system to provide additional financial support for the student athlete.
Many critics argue that the free education provided by athletic scholarships is sufficient compensation. The athletic scholarships, however, are limited to tuition, rent, a meal plan, and books. There is no spending money for other living expenses or for emergencies. Due to the NCAA’s restrictive rules and the immense commitment required to meet the demands of the sport and the academics, the opportunities to obtain “pocket money” are severely limited. In a recent essay published by Jacobin magazine, NBA legend, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, reveals that during his playing days at UCLA he “was always too broke to do much but study, practice, and play.” There is also the recent testimonial of Shabazz Napier who led UCONN to an NCAA basketball championship. Shabazz told reporters that he sometimes went to bed hungry because he could not “afford food, despite that UCONN’s student athlete guidelines include provisions for meal plans.” But these meal plans do not provide food when the cafeterias are closed after night games. In addition, as Kareem explains, the athletic scholarships that these players receive are by no means permanent. If a college athlete sustains an injury and can no longer play, the university can take away the scholarship and thus often the only means of receiving an education. These student athletes risk career-ending injuries and if such an injury occurs, they are left without compensation.
While the scholarship does not cover all expenses and the student athlete bears the risk of injury, the NCAA and its member universities and colleges benefit from the athletic programs. Although not all sports bring in substantial revenue, the bigger, more popular sports at division one universities bring in significant revenue in media rights, ticket sales, and advertising. Revenue is also obtained from using the names and images of star players to sell jerseys, video games, and other merchandise. In its 2014 fiscal year, the NCAA had almost one billion dollars in revenue with an 80.5 million dollar surplus for its growing endowment. According to ESPN’s online database, the top one hundred division one college sports programs all earn a minimum of $20 million a year. Many programs earn much more. For example, the sports programs at the University of Alabama have generated over $120 million a year in revenue since 2008. The NCAA maintains, however, that many of its member schools lose money. The accounting methods used to reach this conclusion have been challenged as overstating expenses and understating revenues. A case in point is the recent news about the University of Alabama-Birmingham (“UAB”) as reported in an article written by Tom Farrey on ESPNs website. UAB dropped football and two other sports citing financial reasons. However, an independent economic analysis firm found that UAB football did make money and that the three-sport balance was a positive $75,000.
The universities and colleges also benefit in ways other than direct revenue from the sports programs. The major sports help generate alumni loyalty and donations. The success of a team or a star athlete can benefit the university significantly. One needs to look no further than the examples of Patrick Ewing, the star basketball player at Georgetown University, and Doug Flutie, the star quarterback at Boston College. According to a Forbes magazine article on student athletes, Patrick Ewing’s performance in the 1982-83 season “helped generate a 47% increase in undergraduate applications and a forty-point rise in freshman SAT scores during the following admissions cycle at Georgetown University.” When Doug Flutie won the Heisman, Boston College saw a twenty-five point increase in undergraduate admissions as well as a 110-point increase in the average SAT score for incoming freshman. In addition to revenue, these athletes can also help raise the academic standard at a university. Yet student athletes are not allowed to profit from something as small as signing an autograph for a loyal fan who wants to show his or her support.
Despite the vast amounts of revenue from college sports programs, the NCAA and its member schools maintain that they cannot afford to pay college athletes. They assert that most NCAA schools spend more on sports than the revenue received from sports. The UAB study has, however, challenged the accounting methods on which this conclusion is based. In addition, the UAB study concluded that future revenues would outpace expenses and would even be sufficient for additional expenses such as stipends. The Huffington Post also recently consulted five sports economists regarding whether colleges could afford to pay student athletes. The response was “a resounding yes.” Because the schools are nonprofit, the incentive is to spend the money in order to balance the gap between revenues and expenses. Therefore, many of these schools have state-of-the-art sports facilities and pay ever-increasing salaries to coaches. Coaches are among the highest paid employees of these institutions. Coaches at the largest public universities are often the highest paid state employees. The average salaries for the highest division men’s basketball and football coaches are around 1 million and 2 million dollars respectively. “The Washington Monthly” reports that in the highest division of college football, the current average coach’s salary has increased by “75 percent since 2007.” The money is there. A portion could be reallocated to provide additional financial support for student athletes.
Some claim, however, that paying college athletes would lead to bidding wars giving larger NCAA schools an advantage. But as the sports economists consulted by The Huffington Post point out, the top-tier programs already have an advantage, offering “famous coaches, first-class facilities, greater visibility and a better shot at the big time.” Certainly the NCAA could set rules regarding the compensation paid to these athletes for their time and efforts. As John Oliver has stated, a student working at the university bookstore is paid. Why shouldn’t the student athlete who helps generate revenue also be paid?
Mr. Emmert, you and others in the NCAA have also objected to any additional compensation for student athletes citing concern for the ”tradition” and ”amateur spirit” of college sports. In a recent lawsuit by former players in favor of pay-for-play, you testified that breaking tradition to pay players would alter what college sports is all about. You fear the loss of camaraderie of game day, of tailgating, and of pride of cheering for one’s university. Given the enthusiastic following for many college sports, it is difficult to believe this would happen. Your argument that college sports would be altered is eerily similar to the arguments made in the early 1900s opposing pay for college coaches. In the early history of college football, coaches were not paid. In fact, some of them were graduate student volunteers. However, as winning and production in sports programs became more important to universities, they started offering coaches salaries to stay for the long-term. This transition to paying coaches was not a smooth one. It was met with the same criticism as the proposal to pay college athletes is met with today. Many college officials, fans, and sportswriters were outraged at the idea of paying coaches. They believed that paying coaches would cause the loss of “amateur spirit” and would “eschew university loyalty.” In fact, a recent article in “The Washington Monthly” references a 1906 editorial that highlighted the “horrors” of corporate professional football and also a 1905 article that chastised universities that paid “$3,000 to their football coach—the equivalent of about $80,000 today—and knocked their recruiting practices.” And what were these nefarious recruiting practices? They were offers ranging from “free tuition to all expenses, including tuition, board, room, laundry, and pocket money.” Traditions were broken in the past and now the NCAA has created new ones. I urge you to be at the forefront of change for college sports.
As previously stated, your tenure as president of the NCAA has been filled with landmark improvements to college sports. It is time now for you to address not only your recently expressed concern regarding NCAA profits from use of the names and images of student athletes but also the broader issue of student athlete compensation. Student athletes should not have to go to bed hungry after a late game or feel the need to violate NCAA rules to obtain money for uncovered personal expenses. As a concerned college sports fan, I ask that you please use your power and influence as president of the NCAA to propose and promote a system to financially compensate these hard-working student athletes.
A college sports fanatic