Why the NCAA Should Pay Student-Athletes—And Let Them Unionize

Brian Wakamo

Zion Williamson of the Duke Blue Devils dunks the ball against the Virginia Tech Hokies during the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on March 29. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

When Zion Williamson’s foot broke through the sole of his Nike shoe on Feb. 20, the sport­ing world stood still.

The con­sen­sus num­ber-one play­er in col­lege bas­ket­ball was play­ing in the biggest game of the sea­son — North Car­oli­na ver­sus Duke — and suf­fered his star­tling injury in the open­ing minute. Williamson’s sprained knee cost Nike $1.1 bil­lion in stock mar­ket val­u­a­tion the next day.

The injury came on the doorstep of March Mad­ness, the NCAA’s most prof­itable event of the year — to the tune of $900 mil­lion in revenue.

Despite the bil­lions rid­ing on his per­for­mance, the NCAA insists that ath­letes like Williamson are ama­teurs” — stu­dent-ath­letes there only for the love of the game. It for­bids them to make mon­ey off their per­for­mance even as they sup­port an indus­try worth bil­lions. Duke alone makes $31 mil­lion off its bas­ket­ball program.

Williamson has been a force of nature this sea­son, cap­ti­vat­ing audi­ences and NBA scouts alike. Entic­ing those NBA scouts is the only way this 18-year-old can build his own future career — and any sort of injury imper­ils that future.

High-lev­el stu­dent-ath­letes,” after all, don’t get to spend much time being students.

They’re sup­posed to spend only 20 hours a week on sports-relat­ed activ­i­ties. In real­i­ty, they spend around 40 hours on prac­tice alone. School­work falls by the way­side, so many schools have out­side tutors do the play­ers’ school­work and cre­ate class­es-in-name-only where the only require­ment is to turn in a paper.

A few years ago, some for­mer ath­letes at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­nasued the school and the NCAA, claim­ing they’d been denied a mean­ing­ful edu­ca­tion. It’s hard to argue with that.

The ath­letes, in exchange for schol­ar­ships, give these schools their lives and put their health at risk. Con­cus­sions of foot­ball play­ers have sparked law­suits, and an injury like Williamson’s could cost a play­er mil­lions in the pro­fes­sion­al leagues. If they can’t go pro — and their edu­ca­tion didn’t do them any favors — what option do they have?

That risk is where the trav­es­ty lies. These thou­sands of ath­letes who play in the NCAA are often not allowed to enjoy the ben­e­fits of the schools they attend (and enrich). If they’re not able to make use of their edu­ca­tion, they should be paid for the work they put in.

When col­lege sports rev­enues are as high as they’ve ever been, the fail­ure to pay the ath­letes is absurd — but not surprising.

Inequal­i­ty of all kinds is on the rise, and the gap between the top and bot­tom of the pay scale is the high­est since the Gild­ed Age of the ear­ly 1900s. The NCAA not allow­ing ath­letes to be paid — or even sign auto­graphs for mon­ey! — is an exten­sion of an econ­o­my where unions are bust­ed and peo­ple have to work three jobs to make ends meet.

It needs to change. Col­lege bas­ket­ball play­ers are on aver­age worth $212,080 to their pro­gram, much more than the cost of their scholarships.

Schools should pay these ath­letes a share of the rev­enue their sport brings in. And the NCAA needs, at the very least, to allow for these peo­ple to make mon­ey sell­ing auto­graphs or appear­ing at sports camps.

Just as impor­tant­ly, ath­letes should be allowed to union­ize their teams and fight for their own rights.

Bil­lions of dol­lars are going to be spent on bet­ting on March Mad­ness games. CBS and Turn­er paid around $19 bil­lion for the tele­vi­sion rights to the tour­na­ment. And over $1 bil­lion in adver­tis­ing is spent on the tournament.

This event is all about the mon­ey. We should spread it around to the peo­ple who make it worthwhile.

This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by Oth­er Words. It has been repub­lished here with permission

Bri­an Wakamo is a researcher on the Glob­al Econ­o­my Project at the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Studies.
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