Sea Change Coming in College Athletics

October 27, 2020

by Christina Elson

Recent litigation breakthroughs, the Covid-19 pandemic, the social justice movement, and renewed campus activism are all contributing to a sea change in college athletics, say three experts brought together by a mid-October webinar sponsored the Wake Forest University Center for the Study of Capitalism. Litigator Jeffrey Kessler of Winston & Strawn, George Washington University adjunct law professor Ellen Zavian, and college athlete advocate Tim Nevius all agree that NCAA sports are at an inflection point.

Thanks to courtroom victories in the O’Bannon and Alston cases, engineered in no small measure by our panelists, student-athletes can now be given – or have the latitude to earn – modest spending money to help defray living expenses. Soon, Kessler pointed out, college athletes will be able to conduct internships, win academic scholarships and other non-athletic grants, study abroad, and pay for tutoring. Moreover, new rules being embraced by the NCAA will allow students to engage in profit-making entrepreneurial activities, much the same as any other college student, whether it’s starting a business (perhaps becoming the next Kevin Plank, the founder of Under Armour), or profiting from the use of their likeness, their “brand,” through vehicles such as personal appearances and commercial endorsements.

In our panelists’ view, not allowing student athletes to freely engage in entrepreneurial activities that could provide a path for them to become successful in business is more detrimental long-term than keeping them from getting a study abroad grant.

The goal, our panelists argued, is to create students who are both well-educated and well prepared to succeed in the market economy. Right now, black and brown student-athletes are neither being given equal access to education nor to the rudiments of capitalism and entrepreneurship.

That’s just the beginning, say our panelists. The dam is breaking soon to enable revenue-sport athletes (at most larger campuses, that means football and basketball) to receive some degree of compensation for their services and sacrifice.

Such a move is long overdue, say Zavian and Nevius. The Power Five athletic conferences (the SEC, the ACC, the Big Ten, the Big 12, and the PAC 12) have created a multibillion-dollar entertainment enterprise that goes way beyond the collegiate mission to educate students, Zavian maintained. Nevius revealed that the first independent report deploring the exploitation of college athletes was released 90 (!) years ago.

In 2004, college football and basketball generated some $3 to $4 billion in revenue. Now it’s four or five times that high – with no end in sight, Nevius noted.

Kessler shared a staggering fact: that not one but two weightlifting coaches at the University of Alabama’s football program earn more than $500,000 a year, on a campus where for years student-athletes were prevented from receiving any compensation beyond tuition and room and board.

My cohost Richard Levick, CEO of LEVICK communications, and I pushed the panelists to discuss the impact on college athletics of the Black Lives Matter and social justice movements. Nevius’ response pointed out that only recently have college athletes begun to recognize the power they wield. Only when football players at the University of Missouri threatened to boycott a game did the campus community succeed in forcing out an administrator who was laggard in cracking down on racially insensitive incidents.

The racial inequities in campus athletics remain overwhelming, Nevius argued. Eight in ten big-time college athletic directors and football coaches are white; the percentage is only marginally lower for basketball coaches, despite the fact that nearly six in ten varsity players are black.

Too many college football and basketball players are risking their health and safety , the panelists say. Zavian argued that the power conferences’ decision to play football this fall amid the pandemic – and no fans! – demonstrates that, in truth, players are more frontline workers than “students” and should be well compensated for their risks, the same as any skilled worker. The football decision also demonstrates how desperate the NCAA and its member institutions are for television revenue. Players’ health and safety remain a secondary concern, she said.

All these factors are combining to force profound changes in college sports. Before long, college athletes may finally receive a level of compensation – and control over their own marketing and branding – commensurate with the revenue they generate for their institutions.

It’s about time.

# # #

Christina Elson is the Executive Director of the Wake Forest University Center for the Study of Capitalism.