By Brenda Robinson
The ruling, Northwestern University football players can unionize, by Peter Sung Ohr—a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board—is long overdue. This particular ruling may or may not lead to college athletes being paid, but at least it is a move in the right direction. Any unfairness starts with a bold, seemingly “not a chance” outcome. Yet, sometimes the results are favorable. In addition, the ruling could potentially affect all college sports, not just football.
Ohr gave his rationale for the ruling. He said, “The record makes clear that the employers’ (in this case being the university) scholarship players are identified and recruited for their football prowess and not because of their academic achievement. No examples shown have indicated players being permitted to miss practice or games because they are studying.”
Of course, major universities and huge football conferences disagree with the ruling. Of course, these groups prefer to continue keeping the dollars generated from the athletes’ skills for other university expenses which include enormous salaries for university coach personnel and college presidents, magnificent stadiums, over-priced buildings and alumni perks.
The newspaper, USA Today, reported that the top 25 university college football coaches wage ranges were: the top three, $5.1 million for the University of Alabama, $5.1 million for the University of Texas, and $4.2 million for the University of Oklahoma, with the final 22 of the first 25 top earners, earning a maximum of $4 million and a minimum of $2 million. College basketball coach earnings are similar with Rick Pitino of the University of Louisville earning $4.8 million, followed by Duke University coach with $4.7 million. University presidents’ top 10 wages were $3.3 million to $1.6 million.
Where did America go wrong? What started this practice of “pimping the poor” to compensate the rich? While we recognize that managerial skills, visionary cleverness and intelligence must be financially rewarded, fairness must not be compromised. And, it is not only the colleges getting rich. Forbes Magazine’s Chris Smith said, CBS and Turner Broadcasting made more than $1 billion dollars on March Madness! Reportedly, the NCAA as a whole, makes $6 billion annually!
Some, although only about two-percent, college athletes may become professionals and earn millions. There could be an argument, maybe, for not paying these athletes college wages. Yet, even with this two-percent, the capitalist way is to pay those who take the risk and are the focus of the wealth. In addition, all athletes are prone to injuries that could end their college and professional careers. All athletes are expected to “earn their keep” by expected performance for which they received scholarships. These athletes, returning from an athletic event at 3 a.m. in the morning and/or being absent from class for days due to the athletic event, are still expected to keep up their grades for sports eligibility and to graduate within the contract limitations. These athletes do not receive scholarships for additional years to complete degrees. After working for the university for four years, without pay, and earning millions for the NCAA and college divisions (Big 10 and Pac 12 among them), they depart, minus tools to make a living.
The greatest injustice, however, is again racism, which enters the picture. Black male athletes dominate the larger university football and basketball teams. These young men reflect the general black population, more likely to have parents whose incomes are lower than the majority population and more often are first generation college students. These black athletes are likely unable to cover personal expenses, even the cost of transportation home. Their families may not have money to attend the football and basketball games. These black athletes’ graduation rates for football and basketball are 30 percent and 24 percent, respectively, lower than their white co-players.
Development of a fair payment plan for college athletes will be a tedious task, but a needed one. Need based salaries may need consideration. Careful discussions on budgeting must be a part of the format. Universities’ financial status must be reviewed. Yet, something must be done. Boyce Watkins, professor at Syracuse University, gave a straight-forward reason why all this needs to be done: “Black athletes are being robbed blind.”
On the other hand, it may not be enough for student-athletes coming from low-income families. Full athletic scholarships allow players to go to college for free. Yet for some people, it may not cover some of the rising costs of personal expenses like food, personal items, clothing and transportation. Families might not have enough money to give to student athletes to pay for things they need. When that happens, accepting money and other gifts from outside sources could sound like a pretty good idea, even if it means jeopardizing college eligibility.
Thus the solution to this problem is for schools to give student-athletes some need-based stipends. Schools could offer them to players in any sport and that way some of the player’s personal expenses would be covered. Then if the athlete still turns to a booster for money, the blame is on the player