Last year, Joe Nocera—an opinion columnist for the New York Times—wrote an enlightening series of articles on the extractive practices and rules of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, of which the University of Wisconsin-Madison is a member.
I think it’s a good idea to see what one of those rules means to UW-Madison. In 2011, the Badger football team raised $18,332,243 in revenue through ticket sales alone, according to the University of Wisconsin Athletic Department. Although it’s hard to put a number on the revenue raised by team endorsements, television rights, royalties on jersey sales and the like, there are surely untold millions more dollars in revenue raised through these avenues.
Of all the money earned by the football program last year, believe it or not, starting quarterback Russell Wilson didn’t earn a single dollar. Running back Montee Ball? Nothing. Linebacker Chris Borland? Yeah, he didn’t see a single cent either. So what’s the NCAA’s justification for prohibiting universities from paying their athletes? Collegiate athletes are amateur student-athletes, therefore they shouldn’t be paid. Never mind the fact that they create the value we, the fans, pay to see.
Sure, players on scholarship may have all or part of their tuition and living expenses paid for. But they don’t see any of the value they create, which is quite a lot. If you don’t believe me, take a look at how much money head coach Bret Bielema made last year: $2.5 million. To put that number in perspective, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker made $138,338 last year according to state records. Why would Wisconsin pay Bielema so much? Because he’s worth it; think of all that revenue we just talked about!
But back to the players. The NCAA’s justification for not paying them is that they’re student-athletes or just amateurs. That reasoning would seem fair to me if we were talking about when the NCAA was founded in the early 20th century. But the nature of college football has changed immensely since then, and now Division I college sports programs are profit-maximizing juggernauts. Division I football programs are incredibly exploitative; they essentially pimp out their players to ensure the highest possible profit margin.
Moreover, the distinction of student-athlete is clearly a misnomer. At a bare minimum, they should have the designation of athlete-students, as the majority of their life is devoted to sport, not school. And the title of amateur is an equally dubious distinction considering the value that athletes create and the sheer amount of money that is wagered on college sports. How about if a player puts in 40 hours a week in practice, weight lifting and watching film, they’re designated as a professional and they earn some of the money the team makes?
The claim of amateur status in Division I college basketball is even more baseless. Many sports fans, myself included, actually prefer watching college basketball to watching professional basketball. In college basketball, upsets are always possible, the players try harder and, well, who doesn’t love March Madness?
The UW-Madison men’s basketball team raised a little over $5 million in ticket sales last year. Overall, the March Madness tournament raised $770 million in total revenue last year and not a single athlete was paid anything. That’s wrong.
Revenue notwithstanding, the UW-Madison football and basketball teams are still incredibly valuable. The Badger athletic program creates what economists call positive externalities—positive effects that students enjoy regardless of whether or not they buy tickets. Athletics bolster school spirit, increase the number of students applying to the school and increase alumni donations.
Let me be clear: the point of this column is not to deride the UW-Madison athletic program; I love college football and basketball just as much as the next season ticket holder. Actually that’s why I believe that players should get paid, because it’s the players who I pay to see. And to be fair, UW-Madison is no different than any other Division I program. In fact, they play a small role in the NCAA’s ploy to rob collegiate players of the value they bring in. But the NCAA’s policy of prohibiting universities from paying their athletes cheats the players from the money that they create. Simply put, the NCAA’s policy on athlete compensation was made for the 20th century, not the 21st, and it’s time for it to end.
Please send all feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.