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The commodity that is the college athlete

College sports is a behemoth in generating big money. Viewers pour in on screens, in stadiums, and are rabid for the entertainment that sports generate. Multi-billion dollar companies such as Nike and Under Armour flood the coffers of universities through investments in equipment to ensure that college athletes are wearing their brand name. Amongst it all, however, the college athlete remains uncompensated, stuck in a whirlwind of corruption. The NCAA treats the bodies of college athletes like a commodity and is an organization whose corruption festers from the athletic departments of universities to those at the apex of the association. 

The organization starts young. NPR reports that some athletic players that are targeted by the NCAA are “as young as 10 or 11 years old when the basketball cognoscenti, the scouts, start looking at them and saying, are you a future college prospect?” (2). And what do they observe on the sidelines of a game where the players have barely entered puberty? Their bodies. Scouts observe the size of the children and are able to narrow them down as the players who are likely to make it to big-time college sports or even professional sports. This is a disturbing reality of the NCAA that begins to unravel the reality of athletes’ bodies being treated as commodities, from as young as ten years of age. 

When the players do enter university, they are entering an established domain with individuals who are equipped with the expert knowledge of how best to benefit from their bodies. Corporations swarm in like sharks, offering money to universities as a way to ask permission to profit off of athletes. Universities rarely refuse. Such is the case with the Southeastern Conference, who, in 2010, “despite the faltering economy… became the first to crack the billion-dollar barrier in athletic receipts” (1). This money came from “a combination of ticket sales, concession sales, merchandise, licensing fees, and other sources—but the great bulk of it comes from television contracts” (1). You have football teams at big universities such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, and Penn State earning “between $40 million and $80 million in profits a year, even after paying coaches multimillion-dollar salaries” (1). What is clearly evident is that an entire mob of individuals and organizations profit off of college athletes, from universities to corporations. 

This money tallies in the billions, and unsurprisingly, very little of it, if any, goes to the players. The accepted idea is that players receive compensation for their skill through their scholarships. But if you look at, for example, the sports program at Louisville, that generates around “$45 million a year in revenue…. They give out 13 scholarships [that] adds up to about $400,000 a year” (2). Where does the rest of the money go? It goes to the coach “who makes $8 million a year [and to the] to the assistant coaches, who make as much as a half-million dollars a year” (2). In this specific case, the entirety of the athletic department is ranking in six-figure salaries each.

The unpaid laborers, the most stressed labors, are the athletes themselves.  

It’s a concept most people are averse to: paying college athletes. After all, the idea of amateurism dominates. Amateurism is the idea of practicing a sport on an unpaid basis for the experience. This model, subtly pushed by the NCAA, argues that amateurism is necessary to maintain the integrity of the players and the entire appeal of collegiate athletics. Most of society balks at the concept of paying college athletes. Even “former college athletes object that money would have spoiled the sanctity of the bond they enjoyed with their teammates” (1). Not to mention the inequity concerns this would create amongst the tuition-paying student body alongside the college athletes who have sports scholarships. 

And yet, there is something inherently wrong in the unpaid labor that college athletes face in this booming and billion-dollar industry. Some people liken the industry to colonialism, arguing that “college sports, as overseen by the NCAA, is a system imposed by well-meaning paternalists and rationalized with hoary sentiments about caring for the well-being of the colonized” (1). In this case, the paternalists are the NCAA and universities, and the “colonized” subjects are college athletes. The argument continues, pointing out the glaring injustice that college athletes face, “the NCAA, in its zealous defense of bogus principles, sometimes destroys the dreams of innocent young athletes,” (1) through their relentless pursuit of dollar signs. While this seems to be a stretch, the main takeaway is that bodies of college athletes are used as a commodity for universities and corporations to profit off of, and the athletes themselves do not receive the money they have generated. The idea of amateurism is the narrative that is being pushed onto athletes, serving as a rationale for why they go unpaid for their skill. 

While the idea of paying college athletes is a hesitant one, the corruption the NCAA reeks of isn’t new. A recent College Pulse poll “found that 89 percent of varsity NCAA athletes feel taken advantage of by the NCAA” (4). The evident injustice is even a concern to certain lawmakers; some lawmakers at both state and federal level have proposed bills that would allow college athletes to profit off their skills. This is currently prohibited by the NCAA, as it would reportedly “mean an end to the amateur athlete status that is required to participate in college sports” (3). 

The NCAA remains intransigent. Universities are hesitant. Even society is reluctant of this idea of allowing athletes to profit off of themselves. In time, perhaps we may grow to accept the idea of college athletes being deserving of even a fraction of the gargantuan sums of money the NCAA, universities, and corporations make. But this will take more lawmakers advocating for athletes, and it will need a society that will hold an organization that preys on the skills of a ten-year old child accountable. It will even require universities and coaches to take a step back from their profits and realize that the very athletes they are profiting from are the ones that should receive adequate compensation. 

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