Don’t Scapegoat College Football Players for the Underfunding of American Higher Education

Frank Manzo IV November 16, 2015

(WFIU Public Radio / Flickr)

Last month, an In These Times fea­ture by Mr. Gilbert M. Gaul sug­gest­ed that an ath­let­ic arms race has divert­ed con­sid­er­able sums of mon­ey from the pri­ma­ry pur­pose of uni­ver­si­ties — edu­ca­tion — to foot­ball pro­grams. The impli­ca­tion was that col­le­giate foot­ball pro­grams were, in part, under­min­ing the com­mit­ment to edu­ca­tion. The Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas, after all, spent $261,728 on each of its foot­ball play­ers, but just $20,903 on each student.”

The fea­ture wrong­ly con­flat­ed two real issues: one relat­ed to col­lege sports and one sep­a­rate­ly to high­er education.

The first issue that this piece miss­es entire­ly is that col­lege ath­letes are, at present, severe­ly under­com­pen­sat­ed for the val­ue they pro­vide. The sec­ond, and larg­er issue for the pub­lic, is that stu­dents at pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties are fight[ing] over crumbs” due to fis­cal con­straints imposed by (gen­er­al­ly con­ser­v­a­tive) gov­er­nors and legislatures.

Foot­ball pro­grams are not the (only) culprit

Let’s start with the exam­ple of North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty, where a union orga­niz­ing dri­ve among stu­dent-ath­letes gar­nered con­sid­er­able media atten­tion. The North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty foot­ball team had $22 mil­lion in expen­di­tures in the 2012 – 2013 aca­d­e­m­ic year. Mean­while, accord­ing to the University’s finan­cial doc­u­ments, the total oper­at­ing expens­es of the Uni­ver­si­ty amount­ed to $1.88 bil­lion in 2013.

Do the math and we see that expen­di­tures on the foot­ball pro­gram account for a lit­tle over 1 per­cent of the University’s total expen­di­tures — the equiv­a­lent of one yard on a foot­ball field.

While the bud­gets of ath­let­ic depart­ments at oth­er uni­ver­si­ties — such as the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas — like­ly account for a larg­er share of total uni­ver­si­ty expen­di­tures, it is still a small frac­tion. For aca­d­e­m­ic stu­dents who are fight[ing] over crumbs,” foot­ball pro­grams are hard­ly the only areas that are respon­si­ble for this unfor­tu­nate state of affairs.

The under­paid col­le­giate foot­ball player

The first issue Mr. Gaul’s arti­cle miss­es is that col­lege ath­letes are in fact underpaid.

This is what In These Times read­ers should actu­al­ly be out­raged about — work­ers who are not being com­pen­sat­ed fair­ly for their labor and are for­bid­den from form­ing a labor union. While Gaul notes that “[p]layers are stu­dent-ath­letes, not pro­fes­sion­als” by law, in prac­tice they are almost no dif­fer­ent from any oth­er employ­ee– espe­cial­ly in a sports labor market.

The tasks of a stu­dent-ath­lete” and the university’s con­trol over the play­er check off every box required to be clas­si­fied as an employ­ee-employ­er rela­tion­ship. Sure, they attend class­es and receive a schol­ar­ship for their role on the team. But many oth­er stu­dents receive full aca­d­e­m­ic schol­ar­ships, and also work at the dor­mi­to­ry cafe­te­ria or at a bar on cam­pus. Schol­ar­ships do not pre­clude stu­dents from reap­ing the fruits of pro­duc­tive labor – except in high­ly prof­itable col­le­giate athletics.

Col­le­giate ath­letes enter­tain fans for far below their mar­ket val­ue as a result of NCAA price-fix­ing. In near­ly all orga­nized sports, a monop­sony” exists and own­ers (or uni­ver­si­ties) fight against an open free-mar­ket system.

It is the play­ers and their unions who fight for a mod­est share of the bil­lions of dol­lars they gen­er­ate, for good work­ing con­di­tions, and for health insur­ance so they do not have to pay out-of-pock­et expens­es when they are injured while per­form­ing in front of 60,000 fans. The cur­rent Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas foot­ball ros­ter lists 115 play­ers, so $261,728 spent on each of its play­ers trans­lates into $30.1 mil­lion. Mean­while, the total (2013) rev­enue for Texas’ pro­gram was $103.8 mil­lion. That’s 29% of total rev­enues, which those play­ers generate.

In oth­er sports leagues, play­er salaries account for rough­ly 50% of total rev­enues. In the U.S. labor mar­ket, labor com­pen­sa­tion accounts for more than 60% of total GDP!

We should not be out­raged that Texas spent $261,728 on each of its foot­ball play­ers” — we should be out­raged that those play­ers didn’t get more.

In fact, as not­ed in the piece, much of the foot­ball expen­di­tures were spent on facil­i­ties, mar­ble floor­ing, play­ers’ lounges, and oth­er items that econ­o­mists would call cap­i­tal.” The real out­rage is first that Texas spent too lit­tle rel­a­tive to the val­ue the play­ers pro­duce, and sec­ond that the play­ers — as work­ers — didn’t cap­ture a larg­er share of that spending.

The mon­ey goes into cap­i­tal, where it depre­ci­ates. It does not go to labor, where stu­dents — pro­por­tion­ate­ly poor­er and more African-Amer­i­can—would spend it back into the local economy.

Recent esti­mates sug­gest that an aver­age col­lege bas­ket­ball play­er is actu­al­ly worth $375,000 per year and an aver­age col­lege foot­ball play­er is actu­al­ly worth $178,000 per year– and far more for big-time sports pro­grams like Texas. And, as Andy Schwarz at Slate points out, the argu­ment that “[t]he 60-plus oth­er schools that play Divi­sion I … lose mil­lions of dol­lars each sea­son” is flawed. School account­ing prac­tices cook the books in an effort to look poor and 17 schools entered the FBS in the pre­vi­ous 17 years with­out a sin­gle one exit­ing — hard­ly what we would expect from a fail­ing” indus­try with neg­a­tive net revenues.

Col­lege fund­ing gets slashed, stu­dents pay

The sec­ond issue is the larg­er one — pol­i­tics. Across the coun­try, high­er edu­ca­tion fund­ing has been slashed. From 2008 to 2014, state spend­ing per full-time stu­dent was cut in 48 states. Eco­nom­ics writer Ben Cas­sel­man reports that, as state fund­ing dropped across the coun­try, col­lege tuition increased in tan­dem. In Wis­con­sin, for exam­ple, state fund­ing fell by $1,401 per stu­dent. Mean­while, the stick­er-price tuition cost rose by $1,530 per stu­dent. Help was not on the way for col­lege stu­dents and their fam­i­lies in the Bad­ger State, as Gov­er­nor Scott Walk­er ® cut an addi­tion­al $300 mil­lion from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin Sys­tem. Mean­while, in bor­der-state Illi­nois, Gov­er­nor Bruce Rauner ® has threat­ened to slash state fund­ing of high­er edu­ca­tion by one-third, caus­ing great harm to stu­dents and to Illi­nois res­i­dents” accord­ing to uni­ver­si­ty lead­ers.

Cas­sel­man notes that the shift in cost from tax­pay­ers to young col­lege stu­dents has been a long-term trend since at least the late-80s. This is despite the fact that Robert Bruno, Pro­fes­sor of Labor and Employ­ment Rela­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign and I find that improv­ing the share of the pop­u­la­tion with a bachelor’s degree is one of main fac­tors that defin­i­tive­ly boosts employ­ment in a state. Even though we know that a well-edu­cat­ed work­force is key to state pros­per­i­ty,” gov­er­nors and leg­is­la­tures across the coun­try have decid­ed not to fuel this par­tic­u­lar invest­ment engine of long-term eco­nom­ic growth.

Ulti­mate­ly, the main rea­son that stu­dents fight for crumbs at uni­ver­si­ties is that state leg­is­la­tures and gov­er­nors have and con­tin­ue to cut fund­ing sub­stan­tial­ly, rais­ing tuition costs — which increas­es the bur­den on poor col­lege stu­dents and their fam­i­lies. Attribut­ing this fight for crumbs to col­lege foot­ball pro­grams that account for a tiny frac­tion of total uni­ver­si­ty expen­di­tures is a diver­sion (or a scape­goat) from the real problem.

Frank Man­zo IV serves as the Pol­i­cy Direc­tor of the Illi­nois Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute, a non­prof­it research orga­ni­za­tion based in the Chica­go area. His research focus­es pri­mar­i­ly on labor mar­ket poli­cies, infra­struc­ture invest­ment, pub­lic finance, and the low-wage work­force. He earned a Mas­ter of Pub­lic Pol­i­cy from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Har­ris School of Pub­lic Pol­i­cy, a Bach­e­lor of Arts in Eco­nom­ics and Polit­i­cal Sci­ence from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign, and an Advanced Cer­tifi­cate of Labor Stud­ies from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois. He can be con­tact­ed at fmanzo@​illinoisepi.​org.
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