Compensate student-athletes.

Happy Monday, and welcome back to the Anti-Racism Daily! The conversation around compensation, value and worth for athletes in the U.S. – particularly student-athletes – is certainly not new. However, last week’s decision by the Supreme Court re-ignites conversations about the role of race and equity in collegiate sports. Read more in Nia’s recap below.

Are you a student-athlete? I’d love to hear your thoughts – reply to this email.

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By Nia Norris (she/her)

Last Monday, the Supreme Court made a decision that could significantly impact the lives of student-athletes. The Court ruled against the National College Athletic Association to allow student-athletes to receive education-related payments of up to $6,000 a year and unlimited non-cash education-related benefits (CNN). College sports bring in billions of dollars of revenue each year. The 2019 March Madness tournament was estimated to have brought $1.18 billion in advertising revenue for CBS and Turner Sports, with networks paying about $800 million for the rights (CNBC). Given the profitability of college athletics, it would be expected that athletes receive fair compensation for the labor that they perform.

In reality, college athletes are not compensated at all beyond scholarships and possibly a stipend. College athletes could be compensated similarly to professional athletes if not for NCAA amateurism rules barring payment by their schools. College athletes are not considered employees and are therefore not protected by federal employment laws that allow other workers to unionize and demand fair compensation for their labor (CNBC).

College athletes sign their name and likeness over to the schools they play, but are not permitted to receive compensation for playing (The Guardian). Student-athletes work full-time hours, often 30-40 hours a week on top of their academic course load. With only 1.6% of college football players and 1.2% of college basketball players getting drafted into major professional leagues, the majority of them will not go on to a career in professional sports. Though are “compensated” with scholarships, graduation rates are significantly lower for student-athletes than non-student athletes and many report lackluster academic support and challenges finding post-college employment (The Guardian).

These athletes often suffer chronic injuries playing for coaches who are the highest-paid public employees in 39 states (IPS). A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that athletic department revenue doubled in the last 14 years – along with salaries for both coaches and athletic department administrators. While athletic staff is generously compensated, revenue-generating athletes are considered “amateurs” and therefore receive little to nothing in what’s been described as “the injustice of fake amateurism” (The Nation).

Black students comprise only 5.7% of the population at Power Five schools, but makeup 55.9% of men’s basketball players, 55.6% of men’s football players, and 48.1% of women’s basketball players. On condition of anonymity, many student-athletes discussed what The Guardian described as “the racist dimensions of their experiences at Power Five PWIs” (predominantly white institutions). Many described the power imbalance between schools and Black athletes and reported feeling exploited and pressured to not express opinions or take on interests outside of the sports they played (The Guardian).

Both professional and college athletics have a history of racism and exploitation. Initially, professional sports were segregated, with Black players excluded from Major League Baseball until 1946 when Jackie Robinson joined the Montreal Royals and later the Brooklyn Dodgers. The National Hockey League still has a majority of white players and when Black players do come onto the rink, they are often subject to racist abuse from fans (McGill Tribune).

The recent Supreme Court decision will not lead to full compensation for student-athletes as it only applies to payments and benefits related to education. However, it invites further challenges to the NCAA ban on paying athletes. Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote that “nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate” (NYT). Effectively, if this decision were to be successfully challenged further in the Supreme Court, it could entirely change the way that student-athletes are compensated and open up the door for more opportunities for them.

Student-athletes are workers and should be compensated as such. They should be permitted to earn money from their names, images, and likenesses that bring in billions of dollars of revenue for the NCAA, schools, and the broadcasting industry. A 2020 survey found that two-thirds of adults believe that college athletes should be able to reap some of the profits that are generated by their hard work (Forbes). The NCAA must change their unfair policies regarding student-athletes.

Key Takeaways

  • The NCAA prohibits student-athletes from receiving compensation as “amateurs.”

  • College sports are a billion-dollar industry. Coaches are generously compensated; players receive little more than a scholarship.

  • A recent Supreme Court decision allows education-related compensation for college athletes, though the NCAA still bans direct payments.


8/18/2020 | Support athletes in taking action.

10/21/2020 | Change racist sports team names.

2/2/2021 | Rally against racist sports mascots.


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