This Is the Only Way to End College Sports Exploitation

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

On Feb. 23, a Tennessee federal judge granted a preliminary injunction sought by the attorneys general of Tennessee and Virginia against the NCAA’s name, image, and likeness (NIL) enforcement rules.

In response, NCAA President Charlie Baker issued a memo on March 1 to member institutions informing them that “the Division I Board of Directors directed NCAA enforcement staff to pause and not begin investigations involving third-party participation in NIL-related activities.” The upshot? No more regulation of NIL in college sport.

This development was heralded as a “gut punch for the NCAA” and “the clearest sign yet that NCAA amateurism is collapsing.” However, what that understandably triumphalist narrative does not account for is the fundamental reality generally masked by NIL moral panic: the NCAA and universities continue to cling to a system in which universities are not required to directly compensate campus athletic workers for their labor.

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As one former power five college football player told us for our forthcoming book, The End of College Football: On the Human Cost of an All-American Game (UNC Press, Fall 2024), of NIL developments: “It’s long overdue. But at the same time… It’s fucked because it’s everyone saying, ‘Yeah these guys can get paid now,’ but we aren’t getting paid for football or the value we bring through football. We are getting paid for a side hustle that we have to seek out.”

In fact, the fine print of Charlie Baker’s statement reveals that three key NCAA enforcement mechanisms remain in place: “the prohibition on pay-for-play,” “the prohibition on direct institutional payment for NIL,” and “the quid pro quo requirement.” That is, as Baker makes clear, one thing that hasn’t changed is that universities continue to be prohibited from directly compensating campus athletic workers for their labor.

It is precisely for this reason that we must look to the NLRB cases centered around Dartmouth and USC for the more revolutionary potential when it comes to the question of exploitation in college sport—and it is no wonder that Baker himself has suggested that these cases would lead the participation of “95 percent” of college athletes to be “endangered,” very much borrowing the language of his predecessor Mark Emmert, who previously characterized basic NIL rights for athletes as an “existential threat.”

Yet, while the leaders of the NCAA may contend that pay-for-play will make college sport economically unsustainable, we argue that the current model is already morally unsustainable because it is predicated on the relentless exploitation of college students who in fact understand exactly how badly they are being cheated.

As we argue in both our book and another recent scholarly intervention, universities derive enormous revenue from college athletics, particularly football; value that is redistributed to stakeholders in the system such as coaches and administrators, and away from the athletes responsible for producing it.

The institutions that comprise the NCAA produce US$18.9 billion in annual revenue. This value is driven primarily by football, principally in the athletic departments of what have until recently been called the power five institutions. In 2022, 49 athletic departments each earned more than $100 million of revenue, with 22 pulling in more than $150 million, and six more than $199 million.

Coaches are the primary beneficiaries of this largesse. As of 2023, 36 college football coaches earn $5 million or more annually: 18 of those earn more than $7 million per year and 10 earn more than $9 million. Additionally, 66 assistant football coaches earn $1 million per year or more, and 21 strength coaches make $500,000 or more. Athletic department administrators also directly benefit. In 2021, 51 Athletic Directors earned $700,000 or more in annual salaries, with 25 of those earning $1 million or more.

Athletic department employees are only able to benefit on the scale they currently do because the athletes responsible for the production of the commodity spectacle that generates all this value are prohibited from receiving pay, something the athletes themselves well understand. Or, as one former power five college football player who spoke with us for the book told us, “The value I am bringing as a football player is worth way fucking more than college tuition and cutting me a check for rent.”

Another player said of pay-for-play: “I don’t think that college sports would fall apart, there would be a big shift in the wealth of where money went within college sports, right now it’s the administrators and coaches, but it would actually be a shift to the labor force… if you’re gonna generate revenue, I think part of that revenue should go to the labor force.” A different athlete was even more direct: “All I’m getting at this point is a degree while all the coaches and the university is getting everything from me.”

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In fact, for some players, the economic conditions have been so bleak that they have resorted to crime to survive. One former power five player told us, “Like that was probably the most crime I ever committed in my life. I was just stealing food. Because I was just starving the whole time… Me and my friend would just go to Safeway. And that was back when they had the hot bar, where you could make your own plate with the pre-made food, just go in there and walk out. You know, no chase policy. And, you know, we had a meal for the day.”

Given that level of privation and the fact players continue not to be paid directly for their work, it is little wonder that NIL, no matter how unregulated, is rightly viewed by many players as palliative rather than cure.

Or, as one player told us, “It’s kind of a slap in the face to be honest… I’m out here hawkin’ chicken for a little bit of cash and coaches be rollin’ up in Land Rovers. Coaches are paid by the university, right?… But when it comes to the players, the men who actually play and bring in people to buy shit, you gotta go out and get some other job doing promo work or signing autographs and shit. That shit takes time, right? You think anyone wants to spend their time after practice showing up to a car dealership to sign autographs? Bruh, nobody wants to do that shit.”

Yet, it is exactly that burdensome quid pro quo requirement—the additional time and effort of promotional work—that remains in effect even as other NIL regulations are waived. And it is only necessary because players are not yet paid for their actual value-producing campus athletic work.

Until they are, we will save our celebrations.

Nathan Kalman-Lamb is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of New Brunswick. Derek Silva is Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminology at King’s University College at Western University. They are co-authors of The End of College Football: On the Human Cost of an All-American Game (UNC Press, Fall 2024) and co-hosts (with Johanna Mellis) of The End of Sport podcast.

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