The Maui Invitational, the first big college basketball tournament of the season, runs though November at the Lahaina Civic Center. It’s a tradition around here dating back to 1982 in which 12 college teams battle for basketball glory. It’s also a product of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), a 106-year old organization that, in the words of the eminent civil rights historian Taylor Branch, is “unjust” and carries the “unmistakable whiff of the plantation.”
I do not offer this essay lightly (indeed, this essay represents my views alone, which are not necessarily shared by my colleagues at Mauitime). In a state that lacks Major League, NBA, NHL and NFL sports teams, collegiate sports–especially those played by the University of Hawaii–play a huge part in society here. What’s more, an event like the Maui Invitational promises to bring much to Maui in terms of visitor spending–a stimulus much needed in these dark economic times.
But after much reflection, it has become my belief that the NCAA exploits students–the organization’s so-called amateur “student athletes”–taking much from their labor but returning no compensation. This deep and substantial exploitation, in my opinion, represents a greater harm to society than the loss of business associated with a two-week basketball tournament.
I simply find it hard to ignore the findings and conclusions of Taylor Branch, whose exhaustive essay “The Shame of College Sports” appeared in the October 2011 issue of The Atlantic. The eminent sportswriter Frank Deford said Branch’s story “may well be the most important article ever written about college sports,” and it represents the foundation of much of my thinking on this subject.
“Big-time college sports are fully commercialized,” Branch wrote. “Billions of dollars flow through them each year. The NCAA makes money, and enables universities and corporations to make money, from the unpaid labor of young athletes.”
The NCAA’s response to Branch and other critics has been mixed. In late October the association passed “sweeping” reforms that included new scholarship money that amounted to stipends for players, but for the most part the NCAA has ignored the issues Branch raised. Mostly the organization insists it would be corrupting to sully the honorable amateur college players with financial payments–indeed, the association ruthlessly targets players accused of accepting secret payments from pro agents.
But the NCAA’s argument ignores the fact that television broadcasting deals for sporting events, be they big tournaments like the Maui Invitational or Bowl Championship Series games or just a regular Saturday afternoon match-up between a couple PAC 10 schools bring extraordinary sums of money to America’s colleges and the NCAA. There’s also the increasing use of players’ names and likenesses on replica jerseys and video games–the sales of which bring in even more money.
The NCAA also recently began selling past games and sporting events through NCAA On Demand.
With the exception of college scholarships, not one penny of that money ever goes to the players. Indeed, a group of former players have filed a class-action lawsuit seeking compensation for such use, according to an Oct. 26, 2011 NPR story. What’s more, the National College Players Association, a small but increasingly vocal advocacy group for the athletes, recently presented the NCAA with a petition calling for scholarship increases and better medical coverage.
“Ninety percent of the NCAA revenue is produced by one percent of the athletes,” Sonny Vaccaro, a retired agent who negotiated millions of dollars worth of contracts between college sports and big corporations like Reebok, told Branch. “Go to the skills positions–ninety percent African Americans. Their organization is a fraud.”
Of course, the NCAA doesn’t merely deny players straight financial compensation. After all, as Branch has written, the whole “student athlete” concept came for much darker reasons than as simply an excuse not to pay players.
“The term is meant to conjure the nobility of amateurism, and the precedence of scholarship over athletic endeavor,” Branch wrote. “But the origins of the ‘student-athlete’ lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed, as the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written, to help the NCAA in its ‘fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players.’”
It’s that simple. If a college player gets injured during a game, the player can’t get any benefits from the school because the incident wasn’t “work-related.”
Of course, the solution to this exploitation–paying college players for their labor–is neither ideal nor particularly desirable. But given the precedent of U.S. Olympic athletes–once forced to be amateurs, they’re now drawn from the ranks of paid professionals–and the value our market economy places on the rendering of services, there really is no other answer, save the dissolution of college sports as a whole.