The NCAA prohibits college athletes from being compensated for their labor. The rule is rooted in the concept of the “student-athlete,” a term the association’s first executive director coined “to help the NCAA fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players,” as Jon Solomon, editorial director of the Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program, puts it.
In the 1950s, the widow of college football player Ray Dennison sued for workers’ compensation death benefits after Dennison, a student on the football team at Fort Lewis A&M, was killed in a football game. The NCAA argued Dennison was ineligible for benefits because he was a student-athlete, rather than an employee of the university. The Colorado Supreme Court agreed, and the term has been the cornerstone of the NCAA’s defense against profit-sharing ever since.
But college sports today bear little resemblance to their amateur origins. “We’re talking about athletic departments with $100 million budgets,” said Craig Garthwaite, lead author of the study. “That’s a commercial enterprise. It is a modern business endeavor and we thought we should analyze it that way.”
To do that, Garthwaite and his colleagues collected revenue data for all 65 athletic departments in the Power Five conferences, home to the NCAA’s top Division I football and basketball programs, from 2006 to 2019. They also assembled data from student rosters across all sports in those departments in 2018, including data on the players’ ethnicity and hometowns.
The data yielded a number of preliminary findings. First, the revenue generated by those athletic departments nearly doubled during the study period, from $4.4 billion to $8.5 billion. Nearly 60 percent of that revenue was generated by football and basketball teams, much of it derived from the increasingly lucrative sale of broadcast rights to major television networks.
“There’s so much money,” Garthwaite said, “and the one group that really has not seen any real increase in benefits are the players who are risking their health and safety to play the sports.”
Over the study period, the average annual salary of football coaching staffs nearly doubled, from $4.8 million to $9.8 million. Non-coaching administrative salaries nearly doubled as well. But financial support for the athletes — primarily tuition aid, room and board — grew 47 percent.
“It’s morally bankrupt,” Garthwaite said. “The NCAA wants it to be ‘amateur’ for the athletes but none of the rules of amateurism to apply to all the other people in the system.”
The NCAA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Much of the money generated by football and basketball programs is spent on salaries for coaches and administrators and on the construction of lavish facilities for the teams. But millions of dollars also flow each year to such “nonrevenue” sports as tennis, sailing and crew, which don’t generate substantial revenue and hence are reliant on the substantial profits from football and basketball to sustain them financially.
The students playing those sports tend to be Whiter and hail from wealthier neighborhoods than those who play football and basketball. Black students constitute nearly 60 percent of the rosters of football and basketball teams, and just 11 percent of the rosters of all other sports. Similar racial dynamics are apparent among coaches. Football and basketball players also came from neighborhoods with higher rates of poverty and lower incomes than students in other sports.
The net result: White athletes and coaches profit off the labor of Black athletes, who receive no additional compensation for the considerable revenue they generate.
“We’re the first to empirically document the regressive nature of it in a systematic way,” Garthwaite said.
“The subsidy that predominantly Black male athletes provide to others is a missing feature when we talk about equity in college athletics,” said Trevon D. Logan, a professor of economics at Ohio State University. “Although some other scholars have noted this, the paper does a nice job of linking this all together.”
Garthwaite cautions that fixing this inequity isn’t as simple a matter as taking away revenue from squash and baseball and giving money back to football and basketball players. The revenue-generating sports play a major role in funding the women’s sports programs mandated by federal Title IX legislation, for instance.
But Garthwaite says the finding that “money is generated from one group that has traditionally been disadvantaged in society and it flows to a group that has not been disadvantaged” requires rethinking how we talk about “equity” in college sports.
“In my opinion, no convincing argument has been made that players should not be compensated far more than they currently are,” said Richard Borghesi of the University of South Florida, an economist who has studied compensation in college sports.
His prior research found that if college athletes were fairly compensated for the value of their work, they would earn “more than double the value of tuition and other aid, and this new study provides additional support for that prior work.”