Bowl season – capped by Monday’s College Football Playoff championship – and March Madness – which ends with the Final Four in April – always bring two colors to mind: green and black.
They represent the vast sums of money being raked in and the vast majority of athletes being raked over.
Increasingly, the annual climaxes for intercollegiate revenue sports unleash streams of debate on what’s right and what’s fair. Colleges, athletic departments and administrators are experiencing exponential growth in income and salaries, while the football and basketball players who produce the wealth largely operate under the quaint “student-athlete” model crafted in the mid-1950s.
Alabama’s Bear Bryant was 15 years away from integrating his football team (beating LSU and Ole Miss by one season) back then. Adolph Rupp was 10 years away from leading his Kentucky Wildcats against a Texas Western squad that had five black starters and changed the face of college basketball.
Back then, college sports was all white, with very little green. The situation has flipped in the half-century since, and justifiying the status quo has become increasingly difficult. I once resided on the other side of the argument, believing that a scholarship was fair compensation for the football and basketball players who generate billions of dollars. I contended that developing a system for compensation would be too difficult and messy, too hard to decide who gets what and why.
But the money grew to the point where my continued defense of the longstanding arrangement became impossible. The situation is morally repulsive. Here’s how Donald Yee puts it in a recent op-ed published in The Washington Post:
“Most fans of college football and basketball go along with the pretense, looking past the fact that the NCAA makes nearly $1 billion a year from unpaid labor,” writes Yee, a sports agent whose clients include New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton.
“But after a year when Black Lives Matter protests spread across the country, and at the end of a season when the football team at the University of Missouri helped force the resignation of the school’s top two administrators over how the campus handled race-related incidents, we need to stop ignoring the racial implications of the NCAA’s hypocrisy.”
No, it’s not strictly a black-and-white issue. According to a 2013 study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Sutdy of Race and Equity in Education, 43 percent of football players and 36 percent of men’s basketball players in the nation’s six biggest conferences were white. Yes, those players are being exploited as much as their black teammates.
Exploitation can be defined as “selfish utilization.” The word fits when you consider what the revenue-producing athletes generate and compare it to what they receive in return.
ESPN is paying more than $7 billion for its 12-year contract with the College Football Playoff. CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting are doling out nearly $11 million for their 14-year deal to broadcast March Madness. Revenue from merchandising and licensing reportedly tops $4 billion annually.
Plenty of individuals benefit from all of that loot – coaches, administrators and other staff members – just none of the players. The Pac-12 commissioner reportedly makes more than $3.5 million. The NCAA president makes more than $1 million. USA Today reports that nearly 60 athletic directors top $500,000 in salary, with nine eclipsing $1 million.
“Even bowl-game directors can make nearly $1 million, for administering a single game,” Yee writes. “These are figures for those at the top of the pyramid: Many schools pay assistant coaches hundreds of thousands of dollars; Louisiana State University’s football team just hired a defensive coordinator for $1.3 million per year.
“And for the most part, the people getting paid are white. The head of the NCAA always has been a white man. Of the Power Five conferences, none – dating back to the 1920s – has ever had a nonwhite commissioner. A 2015 study by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that 86.7 percent of all athletic directors in the NCAA were white. At the start of this college football season, 87.5 percent of head football coaches in the Football Bowl Subdivision were white. In the 2013-14 season, 76 percent of head basketball coaches in Division I were white.
“Why is this business model – unpaid labor, mostly by black athletes, generating riches for white administrators – still tolerated? Because most football and basketball players haven’t acted on the economic power they possess – and no one in the NCAA universe is eager to change that, either.”
The only change that interests the NCAA is the pocket money it fights to keep from athletes.
Monday was Part 1 of our annual reminder.
Three months from now, we’ll see you in Houston for Part 2.