In the wake of Monday’s announcement from those who run the NCAA that they would no longer block athletes from selling their images for profit, my friend Richard Southall, who directs the College Sport Research Institute at South Carolina, called college athletes what they have really become.
“Gig workers,” he emailed me.
No different from Uber and Lyft drivers. Instacart shoppers. Freelancers.
In short, college ballers got the okay to have a side hustle. But little else.
That is not to say that any of those jobs are unworthy of respect or are unimportant in the economy. They are a fast-growing sector of our workforce. But primarily to the benefit of employers (such as, say, college athletic departments) that can contract with workers for certain skills or assignments (such as, oh, deadeye three-pointers that provide March Madness TV revenue) without having to pay them benefits or share revenue.
So no matter the headlines Tuesday, or from a week ago when the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA’s clamps on benefits colleges can give athletes violate antitrust laws, what is most important is that college football and basketball players didn’t just become deserving profit-sharers in the multibillion-dollar industry of revenue-generating college sports.
That was not, for the most part, what was suggested the past few days and probably won’t be highlighted as this week comes to an end. Because Thursday, several states will enact NIL laws — name, image and likeness — that will allow college athletes at schools within their borders to make money by selling the rights to their image to whatever entity buys them. More states will follow.
But here’s the deal: None of that is skin out of the NCAA’s purse, or from the coffers at the schools for which the athletes toil.
That $10.8 billion contract CBS and Turner signed with the NCAA in 2010 to televise the men’s championship basketball tournament? It stays with the NCAA and, as it likes to say, “its member institutions.” The broadcasters signed an eight-year extension in 2016 that gives them the rights through 2032 with an average payout of more than $1 billion starting in four years.
That 12-year, $5.6 billion deal ESPN cut with college football in 2012 to televise the ever-expanding College Football Playoff? It stays with the most powerful and biggest colleges in the football game. It’ll only go up in the future.
Those countless multimillion-dollar deals athletic departments and coaches have with Nike, Adidas and Under Armour to outfit themselves and their players? Those stay with the dealmakers as well.
“The school deals also look to be protected in all the state legislation I’ve seen,” emailed Joel Maxcy, a Drexel economist who has estimated how much wealth college football and basketball players lose by not being paid an equitable share of the revenue they produce. “So individual players cannot sign their own shoe deals or with any company sponsoring the university.”
If they play at a school that Nike is paying to wear its gear, they will wear Nike gear and not get a penny extra for doing so.
It reminded me of an observation from another economist, Karl Marx, who wrote: “Capital is thus the governing power over labour and its products.” In other words, money continues to dictate college athletics’ control over athletes and the games they play. And the NCAA is not relinquishing that power any time soon.
The gig college athletics economy is disproportionately more critical to workers of color — just like this country’s gig economy as a whole. For example, in San Francisco workers of color predominate gig jobs. In college football and basketball, the main revenue-generating college sports, Black male athletes predominate the teams that bring in the bulk of revenue.
That revenue pays for their sports as well as all the sports they don’t play but cost institutions money to run. Those sports are vastly White — wrestling, lacrosse, tennis, swimming, crew, etc. As well as every sport for women except, most notably, women’s basketball.
Yet White men make up most of the NCAA executive management, college conference commissioners, and the football and basketball coaching ranks that have been enriched by those Black male laborers.
So this isn’t just an economic or fairness issue; it is a racial justice issue as well.
Be reminded during this Olympic year that the college athletes on Team USA in nonrevenue sports have been able to cash in through the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee — excelling in sports maintained from the sweat of Black male labor. Ohio State wrestler Kyle Snyder, who prepped at Good Counsel, earned upward of $300,000 in 2016 when winning Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro before returning to the Buckeyes to continue his college career. J.T. Barrett, the quarterback of that year’s third-ranked Ohio State football team that brought in $220 million in revenue, got a goody bag for getting the team to the Fiesta Bowl.
There will be some athletes who extract benefit from this new deal. A star quarterback or point guard may be able to garner some walking-around money from a campus sandwich shop, or maybe a lot more from an Internet platform. Could the under-the-table car deals with some booster’s dealership become over the counter? Possibly.
But this isn’t the correction college sports needed. What needs to change, and still must, has to do with equitability and responsibility.
NIL doesn’t come close to approaching a fair market value for major college football and men’s basketball players. And it doesn’t address workers’ comp and long-term health care, both of which remain out of consideration because nothing the NCAA allowed this week or the Supreme Court declared last week acknowledged that the real status of college football and basketball players is as personnel.
Unless and until those athletes are treated like the workers they are, I am hard-pressed to celebrate what happened the past few days as some sort of watershed moment for college sports.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and professor of the practice at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post.