The National Cartel of Collegiate Athletics


Athletes can be worth a lot of money these days. That’s why it was such a scare when Zion Williamson, Duke University’s top forward and the projected first pick of the NBA draft, went down after his Nikes opened like a banana peel. Thankfully, he came out of the ordeal with only a sprained knee, but the image of a star athlete injuring himself due to the failure of his school sponsor’s product perfectly encapsulates the present economic state of college sports. 

Players are expected to risk an incredible amount for the benefit of their schools. We can think back to the time that Jaylon Smith, now a linebacker in the NFL, tore multiple ligaments in his knee while playing in a pointless Fiesta Bowl game. He was projected to go top five in the draft, which would have earned him around $25 million over four years. But it was uncertain that he would ever run again, and his salary dropped to one fourth of its potential. He is lucky to still be playing.

In response to this glaring issue, many college players, forbidden by the National Collegiate Athletics Association to receive pay, have been arguing that they should receive fair compensation given the revenue they generate, risk of injury they face, and lack of education they actually receive. Despite their demands, the NCAA adamantly holds that, “The rules enforcement process is designed to ensure integrity and fair play among NCAA schools and a level playing field for participating student-athletes.”

This rule has much more to do with profit margins than fairness. 

Illustration by Lee O’Dowd

Be it through revenue generation, maintaining competitive recruitment, or to receive funding from boosters, universities ultimately do receive a service from their athletes. This being America, two sports tend to be more valuable than the others. Division I college football and basketball programs are criminally underpaying their athletes, taking advantage of artificially cheap labor to reap insane profits. Players get little out of their educations, while universities make millions.

As per NCAA regulations, the only compensation athletes may receive is through scholarships, the true value of which is questionable, since athletes are often expected to be competitors first and students second. The rules attempt to mislead you, requiring players to hold a certain GPA. The issue is that schools benefit more from having good football and basketball players than they do from having good students, which leads them to artificially inflate athlete grades.

Almost as a parody of the system, a University of North Carolina basketball player once turned in a 147-word paper and recieved an A-minus. In fact, a Chapel Hill learning specialist, Mary Willingham, estimated that between 2004 and 2014, 70 percent of UNC football and basketball players read at below an eighth-grade level. These players were not admitted to be students; they were admitted to serve the needs of the university.

University of North Carolina is not alone in its transgressions, as the majority of schools with big sports programs have fake classes that athletes can take to keep an eligible GPA, when in truth they are learning nothing. In defense of the lack of classroom value, many argue that just having a diploma is valuable enough in itself, and status as an athlete will get you in the door with alumni. Even if this is true, relying on the world not being a meritocracy is intensely unsatisfying and hiring someone because they played a sport is ridiculous.

In contrast to how little student athletes receive, universities are making out like bandits.

For example, take one of the most exciting sports events of the year, the NCAA basketball championship tournament. College basketball’s March Madness brings home a whopping $1 billion off marketing rights alone. The math here is easy: if we overestimate the cost of each scholarship to be around $50,000, and there are 68 teams in the tournament with 13 scholarships allowed per team, the total amount that schools spend on its players in the tournament comes in at about $44.2 million. Students received less than 5 percent of profit, and that is likely overstated.

Individual programs can make ridiculous amounts of money — Texas A&M University football alone makes over $100 million per year, and the University of Louisville basketball team turns a profit of $44 million per year. The massive revenues produced by these athletes bypass them almost entirely, and instead are funneled to the people at the top. Power conference commissioners and NCAA executives receive salaries over $3 million per year, while head football coaches tend to be the state government’s highest paid employee. Coaches for “amateurs” are valued more than professors, university presidents, and even governors. 

American universities are unique globally in their disproportionate emphasis on athletics; nowhere else do schools actively pour money into something that has no educational value and therefore little benefit to students. Colleges, just like people, respond to incentives, and the reality is that running athletics programs is a calculated business decision. The concept of amateurism allows universities to collude, creating a price cartel to cap athletes’ potential wages.  

In creating and dominating an illiberal market, the NCAA system allows the powerful to exploit their workers for monetary gain, a system both capitalists and Marxists should oppose. Since colleges are essentially running minor league football and basketball, players who wish to compete professionally are required to play for free. To reconcile this, student athletes at a minimum should be able to negotiate contracts that reflect the service they provide to their schools. College sports is an industry just like any other. Why should we treat it differently?  

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