Two weeks ago, I had dinner with a high-profile Michigan football player. For the past four years, I’ve known this player (out of respect for his privacy, I will keep his identity anonymous) and have, since then, wanted to examine his thoughts on the status of student athletes. Seeing that March Madness — and all the gambling on college athletes — was almost upon us, no time seemed more pertinent. Very quickly, our conversation grew heated.

Are college athletes more student or athlete? Are they exploited and do they, therefore, deserve compensation? Or are they given the opportunity to receive a free education and, therefore, given the privilege to play? These were the questions that were tossed back and forth, sitting in a pizzeria on East Liberty.

After I suggested that athletes are, in fact, being exploited, the player countered with an analogy: Take a company, for example. You enter the company and help it grow as everyone else did before you. You leave feeling gratified that you helped the company grow just as those before you did and, therefore, your legacy and the company’s are intimately linked. Upon leaving the company, you reap the benefits from working for that company.

My reaction was one of disbelief. Of course the individual helping the company deserves a piece of the pie the company has accrued. The individual helped make the pie (thereby making him or her an employee).

The player then suggested that student athletes play a sport for the love of the game. If you were to add money into the mix, the team would be in discord, and the integrity of the game would become corroded. Athletes would no longer play for their team but for a paycheck, and no longer dedicate themselves to their fellow teammates. Furthermore, he added, if young boys were paid millions of dollars, they’d blow it all.

My retort was: Sure, maybe they shouldn’t be paid millions, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be paid anything. Certainly there’s a difference being paid $20 an hour and $20 million over four years.

Eventually, the conversation began to blend our arguments when the player suggested something we both agreed on — a student trust fund. In this trust fund, the student would be able to reach into their earnings made from jersey sales, endorsements — anything they earn that is directly attached to their name or their person — upon graduation.  

This, of course, still didn’t solve whether college athletes should be paid.

I later brought these ideas to my housemate. He agreed that players should be able to receive any money based off their name — jersey sales, endorsements, anything related directly to them individually — something they could, and should, be able to profit off of. (This is known as the Olympic model.) However, he suggested that there should be no paid wage. The opportunity that players are given with a (sometimes) free education vastly outweighs payment they’d receive.

I wondered, however, how much an athlete is able to take advantage of that opportunity? How much could he or she really exploit (excuse my wording) the chance they are given as a student in college? That is, if their athletic world demands much more priority than their student one, is it really an opportunity?

Student athletes practice almost year-round, and football players specifically contribute 40 to 50 hours per week from July to January and 20 to 30 hours per week from February to April. Of course, student athletes may have to pay for their athletic careers, as the NCAA or their school will infrequently cover any injury sustained past their college career.

But while student athletes may not benefit from their athletic careers, colleges, the NCAA and companies certainly do. According to one chart, the top 10 schools in college sports made $144.8 million in revenues, while only providing their athletes a total of $12.4 million in scholarship money.

Part of the problem in reforming the status of college athletes seems to be related not just to monetary implications, but also cultural ones. We use market norms when discussing athletes, but social norms when talking about students. The truth is, we have to find a way to blend these two concepts because today, student athletes make billions in revenue for other companies, organizations and individuals. They are considered assets in corporate, college and gambling circles — they need to be considered as such in the NCAA as well. There needs to be a simple paradigm shift.

When we enter into the world, we become oriented toward a bunch of systems — systems of politics, education, the private market — and social norms that come with them. We look at these systems and, frequently, believe that this is the way things have always been. Our world becomes our norm, and we come to accept reality as it is now, like it’s always been this way. But, surely, we all know that’s not the case. What is now is not what was 100, 1,000 or 1 million years ago. The individuals running the NCAA seem to have not adjusted how they view the system of college sports.

This adjustment, in fact, was intimidating for the player I had dinner with.

At the end of our conversation, he told me that if he believed he were being completely exploited by his school, the NCAA and American society more broadly, he’d have a harder time showing up to practice and putting his body, and mind, in danger.

That makes sense. More students don’t unionize like the ones at Northwestern University did because they can’t protest half-ass. They can’t be athletes and want to change the system. For systemic reform to ensue, football players at large collegiate institutions would have to become activists. This fact prevents student athletes from acquiring the power they deserve. The only other alternative to instill reform in the system is for everyone to cease associating with college sports — stop buying tickets, jerseys and watching on TV. Unfortunately, I don’t think either reality will come to fruition anytime soon.

Sam Corey can be reached at samcorey@umich.edu. 

 

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