Overtime: Leveling the Playing Field for Student Athletes

BEN SIECK | Sports Editor

College sports are at a crossroads. The National Labor Relations Board ruled Northwestern’s football players are employees, not student-athletes, and that those players can unionize.

The NCAA has come out firmly against the idea of student-athletes being employees. But with legislation heading in the other direction, schools could be compelled to provide their athletes with more than just a scholarship.

These players are advocating for increased health benefits and scholarship protection, but they should be asking for even more.

Of the 66 football programs in the six power conferences, the average program nets a yearly profit of $18 million, according to a study conducted by University of San Francisco professor Dr. Daniel Rascher.

Men’s basketball is also a lucrative venture. Television ad revenue among all colleges alone was more than $1 billion in 2012. In some cases, this money goes to support other athletic programs. However, a significant amount of money goes to coaches and administrators, and the players receive none of it.

Division I football and basketball coaches regularly make seven-figure salaries while their players put their bodies at risk and earn nothing.

Those opposed to creating a pay-for-play scheme say athletes already get compensated with scholarships. This is a nice sentiment, but it rings hollow when those athletes can’t or don’t use the education they are given.

The University of North Carolina has come under fire for admitting athletes who could not meet basic college-literacy standards. A Chapel Hill researcher found that more than half of 183 Tar Heel athletes screened for their reading skills over an eight-year period could not read beyond an eighth-grade level.

If UNC is any indication, universities do not take into account whether student-athletes can grasp their coursework. As long as they can play, they get a scholarship.

Universities are essentially letting kids into schools they are not qualified for and then compensating them with work they cannot do or that fails to qualify as educational.

Without the knowledge behind it, a degree is essentially worthless. Education is not a form of currency. When student-athletes are being paid with a meaningless coupon, they walk out empty-handed.

Butler Athletic Director Barry Collier said he does not support the idea of student-athletes becoming employees. He said he is concerned education will take a back seat to athletics.

“I think the opportunities available in college athletics are significant,” Collier said. “The educational benefit is very much a part of the experience for student-athletes and should remain so.”

In an ideal scenario, Collier is right. If the athlete is equipped to take advantage of the opportunity and surrounded by a proper support system, the current model benefits the student-athlete.

However, as the UNC case shows, schools cannot always be trusted to uphold this model. Compensating players with a tradable currency is a tangible form of payment that better ensures players receive what they are due.

Collier said he foresees the NCAA passing a measure by the end of summer to increase the value of a scholarship to cover the full cost of school attendance. This same ruling was approved in October 2011, but it was rescinded months later when more than 125 Division I schools formally opposed the measure.

Collier said Butler supported the original measure and plans to support a future resolution as well.

Passing legislation this summer is a step in the right direction. However, more could and should be done for the student-athlete.

The NCAA is currently facing an antitrust suit from former UCLA student-athlete Ed O’Bannon regarding the idea that athletes are not properly compensated for use of their name, likeness and image.

Even for schools without major college football programs like Butler, there is money to be made off of men’s basketball.

Programs make money from more than just broadcasting. Selling items like  numbered jerseys also allows schools to profit directly from their players. Without the players, there wouldn’t be jerseys to sell, yet those players see none of that money.

Butler men’s basketball coach Brandon Miller echoed Collier’s stance on the benefits of being a student-athlete in the current system.

However, he said he sees some opportunities for change in how player likenesses are used.

“Schools are going to make money off what players have done by selling their jersey in the bookstore,” Miller said. “I think there are opportunities to reward student-athletes in different circumstances. I’m not exactly sure how to do that, but I think there is room for change moving forward.”

Miller may not be advocating for sweeping reforms, but at least he sees opportunities to improve. Radical changes are not going to happen overnight, but acknowledging the flaws in a system is the first step toward building a better one.

In theory, student-athletes are receiving a substantial opportunity. However, looking at the big picture shows an uneven distribution of wealth, and a system that fails to punish the exploitation of its laborers.

Change is coming, but it needs to arrive sooner rather than later.