College football has returned to the airwaves and with it the debate over paying student-athletes. Though the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) brought in nearly $1 billion dollars in revenue last year, the organization continues to resist compensating student-athletes because they argue it would undermine the ideals of amateurism. But "the term 'student athlete' is actually a fiction," says Ellen Staurowsky, a sport management professor at Drexel University. "It was created to obscure the fact that the NCAA knew that it had created a pay-for-play system."
Staurowsky argues that the NCAA's construct of amateurism changes to fit the needs of the organization. "The NCAA has three different divisions and there are different definitions of amateurism for each one," she says.
Public opinion seems to be shifting in favor of a pay-for-play system. A 2014 Reason-Rupe poll found that 64 percent of Americans think student-atheletes should receive money if a college or company sells gear containing their likeness or jersey number. And 50 percent of Americans said college basketball players should get some of the $700 million in television rights revenue from the NCAA March Madness tournament.
"Higher education is the sponsor of this enormous entertainment industry and it's building that industry on the backs of an unrecognized labor force," says Staurowsky. But if we are going to consider paying student-athletes, how do we determine their worth in a fair market?
Staurowsky, along with Ramogi Huma—a former football player at UCLA and president of the National College Players Association—looked to the pros for a model.
"There was no real discussion about what the potential market value of a college football and men's basketball player might be," says Staurowsky. "It seemed reasonable that we would go to the professional associations where there's a revenue sharing mechanism in place. So we looked at the NFL and we looked at the NBA to begin to have a starting point."
By looking at those models and considering the NCAA's new rule-change allowing student athletes to receive a scholarship covering the full cost of attendance, Staurowsky estimates that collegiate football players' worth is in the neighborhood of $110,000 a year across all schools. "If we begin to really look at the expanse of money that is out there, the question isn't so much whether or not the industry can afford to pay athletes," Staurowsky says. "It's just a matter of when there will be a recognition of the vast of amount of profit that is being generated in all of these other sectors and for people to understand that there really is money out there to do it."
While the NCAA may have the money to pay its student-athletes, however, it has been slow to make any meaningful changes. This inaction has led to a multitude of lawsuits that threaten the power structure of the organization, along with the Northwestern University football program's historic bid to unionize.
Though the National Labor Relations Board rejected Northwestern's union bid in mid-August, the threat of unionization pushed the NCAA to make major policy reforms to raise scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance.
Staurosky admits there can be issues with unionization, but she says it is important to put an outside group in place that can advocate on behalf of student-athletes.
"We know that this is a starting point in the conversation," says Staurowsky. "But we also know that our estimate is far more representative of the kind of inequities that exist in the system than simply just accepting that the scholarship is the only measure."
This story originally ran on September 11, 2015.
Approximately 7 minutes.
Produced by Alexis Garcia. Camera by Todd Krainin and Meredith Bragg. Music by Silent Partner.