Magdalena Mihaylova: Pay student-athletes

Tuesday, March 27, 2018 - 6:29pm

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It was a surreal Saturday. As the seconds dwindled down in what was a close, low-scoring and sloppy March Madness basketball game, Michigan vs. Florida State, the entire bar was silent. Each breath began to pulsate to the same rhythm, a hypnotic mumbled version of “The Victors,” as we watched the five sweeping flat-screen TVs with ignited interest. Then, with the realization that we were going to win — “The Wolverines are going to the Final Four!” — the bar erupted into a chaos of chants, screams, hugs, clinks of glasses and euphoric happiness.

It was in this moment of observing pure joy that I turned my gaze back to the screen. I watched as these 19 young men celebrated in a manner almost identical to us, but with a barely visible hesitation. They still hadn’t made it: They had to worry about the next game, their homework due on Monday and various other concerns normal college students face. Whereas we fans would head home for the night, the weekend stretching before us, they were faced with a long, packed schedule.

Before starting college at the University of Michigan, I didn’t know much about the NCAA. I had read a few things about its supposed exploitation of players, but it wasn’t until I arrived on campus that I realized the weight of this truth. Before, I had viewed student-athletes as celebrities, arrogant and entitled to their full-ride scholarships, fancy gear and free passes in class. Now, I see them everywhere, in the flesh — asking for double servings in the dining hall, studying in the basement of East Quad Residence Hall, stopping at a tabling event in Angell Hall — and I realize that they are real people; real college students. They are here both to learn and represent our school — to further both their education and athletic career. The only difference between me, a freshman, and Jordan Poole, a freshman, is that he is part of a department that makes up to $158 million in revenue for the University— and I am not.

The most profitable college sports are men’s basketball and football. These sports generate huge amounts of revenue for the NCAA and their universities through ticket sales, merchandise and television viewership. According to the NCAA, about $821 million is generated through television and marketing rights from the Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament and about $130 million is generated through ticket sales to championship events. Moreover, in 2013, CBS and TBS split $1 billion in revenue just from March Madness. And two years ago, the University generated more than $97 million for football and earned a $60 million profit.

There is no denying that these athletic programs make a lot of money, so where does it all go? In football, there are the reasonable investments, such as facility maintenance, travel expenses and student scholarships, but there is also a large amount diverted to extravagances, such as flashy new jumbo screens or usage of private jets. Coaches also receive generous and arguably excessive salaries. Jim Harbaugh is known as college football’s highest-paid coach, with yearly pay of $9 million.

With all the money and deals and chaos, the students often get pushed aside in the financial battle. The industry is so concerned with profiting that it exploits their players. In exchange for their athleticism, student-athletes receive full-ride scholarships, which includes their tuition, room and board. They get to travel and play the sport they love. However, behind the glamour and seemingly righteous compensation, they struggle in even their menial needs. In an interview with Shabazz Napier, former University of Connecticut Huskies basketball player, he stated that “some nights I go to bed starving.” His sentiments have been echoed by many student-athletes who believe that a full-ride does not sustain a real college lifestyle, one that includes buying textbooks, going out to eat or attending events.

Critics suggest that student-athletes, like other busy students, should be grateful for their scholarship and follow the standard path of getting a part-time job to make that extra money. Yet I would argue that their position as an athlete for a university functions as a job. For example, in a 2013 report on Northwestern’s football program, it is outlined that a player’s “typical training camp day entails mandatory meetings, film sessions and practices from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.” Something that consumes one’s day cannot be labeled as a hobby, especially when its results come in the form of billions of dollars.

Student-athletes also lack security. As of 2013, universities aren’t required to provide health care when an athlete is injured, which leads to steep medical bills, and oftentimes, rescinded scholarships. One notable story is that of Kyle Hardrick, a former University of Oklahoma basketball player who now works 12-hour shifts in the oil fields near his home in Texas. During his freshman year of college, he tore his meniscus, and after a lethargic reaction by the athletic department, the university refused to pay for his surgery and rehab. However, in hopes of playing, Hardrick went through with the operation and recovery, paying out of his own pocket. Once ready and optimistic, his head coach Lon Kruger decided that “Kyle really don’t belong here” and the university rescinded Hardrick’s scholarship. It is a disgrace that universities can so blatantly disrespect and discard such vital members of their institution.

There needs to be impactful, dynamic bylaw change within the association. Student-athletes deserve better compensation, in whatever form it may hold. The current situation is not fair. Student-athletes provide and produce so much for their universities, and yet the NCAA profits in an extremely disproportionate manner. With the implementation of a work-study type program, free lifelong health care and non-rescindable scholarships, student-athletes will find themselves represented and respected, and therefore empowered, in performing for the school and sport they love.

Maggie Mihaylova can be reached at mmihaylo@umich.edu