NCAA

Are NCAA Rules on Its Athletes Creating an Uneven Playing Field?

As the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament gets under way, critics say student-athletes see minor gains while coaches continue to rake in millions

by Morgan Campbell, March 16, 2017

Comments
NCAA

Kansas State's Isaiah Maurice, left, and Wake Forest's John Collins, right, battle for a rebound. AP / John Minchillo

John Calipari won’t earn any win bonuses this season, no matter how far his University of Kentucky Wildcats advance in the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament. The contract extension he signed in 2014 traded incentives for guaranteed cash, and for the $7.25 million Calipari will earn, wins are simply expected.

Next year, his pay will increase to $7.75 million, and $8 million in each of the deal’s final three seasons, according to contract details on a University of Kentucky web portal. Calipari’s contract ends in 2021.

A USA Today college sports database reveals Kentucky’s athletic program brought in more than $116 million in revenue in 2014–2015, much of it from men’s basketball.

The players who help make the program so lucrative receive scholarships in return, and this year they were allowed to receive small stipends. But paying salaries or granting access to money from licensing deals would violate their amateur status and NCAA rules, voiding their team’s victories and imperiling their eligibility.

If you think it’s strange that the players who form the backbone of the multibillion-dollar college sports industry are barred from sharing in its revenue, welcome to the NCAA. The governing body overseeing college sports maintains that paying players would ruin the on-field product, even as it rakes in billions in broadcast and licensing fees. By the time the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament ends in April, the NCAA will have collected roughly $771 million in TV and online streaming rights alone.

John NCAA
Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari

And if you notice that the people who profit from some NCAA sports are mostly White while the players who attract paying customers are largely Black, it’s not a coincidence.

Over the past half-decade, several movements have sprouted with the goal of paying college football and basketball players in return for the massive revenue those sports generate. Critics of the NCAA rulebook—which allows players to receive scholarships but not salaries—argue that any system that doesn’t share cash with players is exploitative. Even full scholarships don’t cover the entire cost of attending school.

But increasingly, critics are pointing out that the NCAA’s rules on amateurism have a disproportionate impact on Black football and basketball players, whose unpaid labor generates the revenue that allows a mainly White cohort of coaches to earn seven-figure salaries. For many stakeholders, redistributing the NCAA’s wealth is also a matter of racial justice.

A class-action lawsuit headlined by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon led to a district court ruling that the NCAA’s ban on paying players amounted to price-fixing. This part of the decision was affirmed upon appeal.

“Illegal price-fixing harms the people whose prices are being fixed, which are the players,” says Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, a group that advocates for NCAA athletes’ rights. “The NCAA’s illegal activity affected football and basketball players, the majority of whom are Black. That’s not a matter of opinion. That’s just facts.”

The NCAA’s stats bear out the racial disparity in its most lucrative sports, where African-American athletes outnumber peers from every other racial or ethnic category.

According to the NCAA’s demographics database, African-Americans composed 57.6 percent of Division I men’s basketball players and 47.4 percent of Division I football players at the start of the 2015-2016 school year. In the Atlantic Coast Conference, the league that includes national champion Clemson Tigers, the proportion of Black football players jumps to 50.5 percent.

But only 14.8 percent of Division I football coaches are Black, compared with the 80.9 percent who are White. And White men make up 71.6 percent of Division I men’s basketball head coaches, while Black men comprise only 26.1 percent of that group.

Meanwhile, the dollar figures connected to those two sports keep climbing. Turner Sports and CBS are paying the NCAA $10.8 billion over 14 years to broadcast March Madness. When that deal expires a new eight-year contract begins, paying the NCAA an average of $1.1 billion annually. Meanwhile, ESPN’s 12-year deal to carry the football Bowl Championship Series is worth $5.6 billion.

Under those arrangements, coaches cash in—five college basketball coaches earned more than $4 million in salary this season. But critics point out that when Black athletes comprise such a large majority of players on the NCAA’s biggest stages, they’re most affected by missing out on the cash windfalls.

“Basketball [players] are getting hit the hardest in terms of not being able to capitalize, so some balance has to be found,” says Portland-based sports marketing agent Noah Koné. “The top 10 [basketball players], 90 percent of the time they’re African-American. … There’s a good chance those kids are generating seven figures of revenue.”

For other people opposed to the NCAA’s strict amateurism rules, the connection between revenue and race runs even deeper.

In 2011, historian Taylor Branch penned a feature in The Atlantic titled “The Shame of the NCAA,” detailing how the organization came to control college sports. Branch notes that the NCAA’s commitment to keeping players unpaid even as college sports grew into a commercial venture carried “the whiff of the plantation.”

Sport historian Louis Moore goes further, noting that college football and men’s basketball became huge revenue generators after the post-civil rights era integration of major athletic programs. The infusion of African-American talent coincided with the growth of sports as television property, which in turn increased the money involved.

Moore points out that NCAA sports generating less revenue sometimes have looser rules governing amateurism. Although football and basketball players forfeit their NCAA eligibility by entering the draft, baseball players can be drafted after high school or during college, remaining eligible for college ball unless they hire an agent or sign with a pro club.

Only 5.4 percent of Division I baseball players are Black, and that figure dips to 3.3 percent when excluding HBCUs. Meanwhile, 78.8 percent of Division I baseball players are White. It’s a double standard Moore says starts at the intersection of money, race and control.

“Theirs is an idea that amateurism is a good thing because it pays for non-revenue sports, but Black kids don’t participate in those sports largely,” says Moore, a history professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. “You’re asking Deshaun Watson to fund a White golfer.”

For its part, the NCAA maintains that even high-level athletes are students first, and that paying players compromises their integrity. Ironically, NCAA President Mark Emmert says the players’ amateur status is a key to keeping college sports marketable.

“To convert college sports into professional sports would be tantamount to converting it into minor league sports,” Emmert said in 2014 while testifying in the O’Bannon antitrust case. “And we know that in the U.S., minor league sports aren’t very successful either for fan support or for the fan experience.”

But race even influences fans’ attitudes toward paying college athletes. A 2014 poll conducted by HBO Real Sports and Marist College found that 53 percent of Black respondents thought athletes deserved payment, compared with only 25 percent of White fans.

Regardless of how the NCAA or its fans view amateurism, the reality is that with so much money at stake for so many people, interests come into conflict.

In December, for example, Stanford University football player Christian McCaffrey announced he would skip the final game of his college career—the Sun Bowl against the North Carolina Tar Heels—so he could prepare for this spring’s NFL draft. Stanford received a $2.15 million payout for a game it eventually won 35–33. And though McCaffrey could have helped his team win more comfortably, he reasoned an injury suffered while playing for free could jeopardize his off-season training and cost him money on draft day.

A program to pay college athletes could benefit players of all colors, and White players such as UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen have openly criticized the NCAA’s contradictory stance on amateurism.

But African-American athletes, both active and retired, have traditionally led the movement to get college athletes paid:

  • In 2009, O’Bannon’s class-action antitrust suit challenged the NCAA over the use of players’ likenesses in video games. A U.S. court of appeals ruled in 2015 that some NCAA rules violate antitrust laws.
  • Quarterback Kain Colter started a drive to unionize the football team at Northwestern University. In 2014, a regional director at the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern football players were employees with the right to organize the union. The following year, a five-member NLRB panel opted not to rule on the Northwestern case, instead referring the team’s labor issues to the NCAA.
  • Minutes after winning the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament with the University of Connecticut Huskies, Shabazz Napier told reporters how the NCAA’s strict amateurism often left players without enough to eat. “We do have hungry nights that we don’t have enough money to get food,” he said. “Sometimes there’s nights where I’m not able to eat, but I still gotta play up to my capabilities.”

In recent years the NCAA’s stance on amateurism has softened somewhat. After Napier’s post-championship speech, the NCAA ruled to lift restrictions on how much food players could receive under their scholarships. And in 2015, the NCAA began permitting schools to pay players’ stipends to cover the gap between their scholarships and the full cost of attending school.

But those concessions don’t necessarily portend a full redistribution of college sports wealth. A group of NCAA athletic directors has scheduled a gala for later this year at a Washington, D.C. hotel owned by President Donald Trump, hoping to enlist him and sympathetic congressmen to pass legislation limiting player payment.

“This notion that you have to give up three or four years of your working life just to get exposure is crazy,” Moore says. “I don’t think we would do that if it [were] a White kid.”

 

More great reads

 
Stay in the Know
Sign up for the Ebony Newsletter