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The NCAA Needs To Change

By: Ethan Mathieu 

Every year, tens of millions of people tune in to watch March Madness, a yearly college basketball tournament hosted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Just from selling the rights to stream the game, the NCAA makes about 800 million dollars. That’s more than Marvel made domestically from Avengers: Endgame. With all of this money, one would assume the stars of the show--the players--are being paid a fair wage. After all, it is the players who make the tournament so special. Except, that’s not the case. They don’t receive a penny from their endeavors. Why is that?

The NCAA’s excuse is that those players are “amateur athletes”. They cannot make a paycheck from something that isn’t their job. Another argument is that they are paid. They get a scholarship to an otherwise expensive university and therefore have access to a college education in exchange for their athletic talent. The third and final point usually made is that these athletes get “exposure”. The college level is meant to be a stepping stone for these athletes to catapult their brand and get noticed by professional recruiters. The NCAA is doing them a favor by providing such an amazing opportunity. Everyone watches these tournaments, it’s free advertising. While these arguments make sense in the theoretical, the reality is home to a plethora of flaws.

One of those flaws is with the idea that all NCAA athletes should be treated like amateurs. This is true to some extent. The NCAA is split into three divisions: Divisions I, II and III. Each school, based on the talent they attract and the level they wish to play on, slots into one of these divisions. Division I is home to the best players and as a result, the ones who may go pro. Someone in a Division III, or even some Division II for certain sports, usually does not expect to become a professional player. These are the amateurs the NCAA broadly characterizes all their athletes as. March Madness is a Division I Basketball Tournament. These are the players the NCAA makes hundreds of millions of dollars off of each time March rolls around. They do not deserve to be lumped in with the rest of the flock.

The assertion that scholarships make up for the lack of monetary compensation is misguided. The scholarships these players are given often have strings attached. If they get injured, for example, they may lose it. These athletes are often made to think their education is secondary to the sport they play. According to a study conducted by Ursinus College, almost 60% of college athletes surveyed found it “difficult” or “very difficult” to juggle school and their sport. Coaches, in an effort to be the best and get a sweet bonus, go to unimaginable lengths. The NCAA officially restricts practice hours to 20 per week, but numerous lawsuits have revealed that players have as much as 40 practice hours per week. More practice equals commitment to the team, which tends to correlate with starting positions given by coaches, putting the athletes in a rough spot. Less than 2% of NCAA players go pro. Even fewer know for a fact that they will go pro. For that select group of athletes, college is their training ground. They do not need to go to class because they will get a multi-million dollar contract in a year or two. However, the rest of them are being denied the education that is supposed to compensate for their lack of pay and set them up for a future outside of sports.  In a Vice News mini-documentary on the collegiate sports industry, a Michigan basketball player described the load he had to carry as a student-athlete as being similar to a “...9 to 5 job”, where he would, of course, get a paycheck. These athletes are being denied the opportunity to take advantage of their education. The NCAA cannot have it both ways.

The exposure argument peddled by the NCAA also aligns with this same logic. If the athlete has no brand they can realistically grow, NCAA hosted events do not matter as much as the NCAA wishes they did. Again less than 2% of NCAA athletes go pro. There is a failure rate. Treating the situation as if all players will succeed thanks to the services of the NCAA is unfair and unrealistic. 

The solution to this problem will not be simple. The NCAA should designate a portion of funds accrued from tournaments for players’ scholarships. These funds can not be lost for any reason and would travel with the player if they transferred. If the player doesn’t graduate, they would get a reduced amount of that money in cash. While the NCAA already offers scholarship programs, only about 2% benefit from them. Most scholarships are also not full rides. All athletes should be entitled to a percent of the profits from products bearing their likeness. Athletes should also be allowed to pursue contracts with companies, which would disrupt the NCAA’s current monopoly.  Finally, action should be taken to ensure that athletes are given enough time for their academic studies. This will vary wildly from school to school, but a basic tenet should be an enforced maximum time practice can run until, not just a weekly hour quota, with heavy fines being levied on schools that do not comply. Players would be encouraged to take initiative and report non-compliers.

The monopoly that is the NCAA needs to change. Coaches’ salaries continue to balloon as the NCAA expands and brings more money to schools. The NCAA argues they are providing an indispensable opportunity to student-athletes, but instead they are limiting their access to an education, which will hurt them in the long term when going pro, statiscally, doesn’t pan out. Branding a group of people who single-handedly bring millions of dollars to an organization as amateurs is an exercise in futility. In the same aforementioned Vice News documentary, a former college football player described college as the “prime earning years of his life”. Everyone in the NCAA system gets a cut of the monetary pie except the players, and that needs to change.

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