Exploitation in the NCAA
On Monday night, March Madness will conclude. One of the best months of the sporting year will come to an end, and a national champion will be crowned. While the madness occurs on the court, a different sort of madness is going on behind the scenes. Two separate class action anti-trust law suits have been filed against the NCAA, just last week the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in favour of Northwestern football players finding them to be employees of the university with a right to unionize, and sports journalism south of the border is alive with talk about students-athletes being exploited by the NCAA. So, are student-athletes being exploited? What does it mean to be exploited?
I just finished my own basketball career at Carleton University in Ottawa, and I was lucky enough to play on five national championship teams. I am also currently working on a Master of Arts degree in Philosophy at Carleton, and part of my academic focus is the concept of exploitation. I want to make it very clear that I was not exploited as a student-athlete. Exploitation theorists will say that exploitation involves taking unfair advantage; one way to understand taking unfair advantage is in terms of an unfair sharing of profits. I was not exploited because I received a fair portion of the profits in the form of scholarship, which led to a very good education while playing basketball. This was adequate in my case because my team does not generate any significant money for my school. For the most part, the same cannot be said about student-athletes in the NCAA.
The first reason for this has to do with the revenue generated by March Madness: from the beginning to the end of the tournament, the NCAA will have made about 90% of its nearly billion-dollar annual operating budget, and the players whose work generates that revenue will receive none of it. Television networks are willing to pay the NCAA billions of dollar in order to broadcast March Madness, and this is because advertisers are willing to pay even more than that to advertise during March Madness. Why is this? Because fans want to watch the players play. The source of the money can be traced back to the players, and yet the players get no share of the revenue. This seems very wrong. The NCAA has a scripted response to this objection: student-athletes are students first, and they get a quality education paid for by their universities. This response, unfortunately, is self-serving and not entirely true, which brings us to the second part of the issue.
Part of the recent ruling by the NLRB was based on a study that showed that student-athletes at Northwestern spent far more time as athletes than they did as students. Some players testified that the coaching staff at Northwestern did not allow them to take certain courses. So not only are student-athletes obviously athletes first, but their ability to be a student is restricted by their athletic involvement. Further evidence that the quality of the education that many NCAA student-athletes receive is quite poor is a recent study on the University of Connecticut basketball team (who will be playing for the National Championship Monday night). The study showed that since 2003, the graduation rate for UCONN basketball players is 8%; this means that of the 12 players that will dress for UCONN on Monday night, only one or two of them is likely to graduate. These are staggering numbers, particularly when the NCAA is claiming that part of why it is okay for student-athletes not to be paid is because of the education they receive.
Once again, I want to stress how different my experience was than those at Northwestern. The culture of my team ensures that players do well in school, and that those who are under-achieving academically are helped by mandatory time spent in our study hall. The culture of my team involves taking success seriously, both on the court and in the classroom. I have teammates in neuroscience, in engineering, and I have two teammates planning on starting their MBA in the final year of playing basketball. This has all occurred on a basketball team that has won 10 of the past 12 national championships, and beat Final Four team Wisconsin by 13 in the preseason. Of course there are many schools in the NCAA that offer their student-athletes a great education, and this can certainly mitigate the exploitation caused by unfair profit sharing. But only where a student-athlete enjoys fair profit sharing and receives a quality education, as I did at Carleton, is exploitation avoided altogether.
The NCAA is committed to something it calls the Principle of Amateurism, according to which they aim to protect student-athletes from exploitation from professional and commercial enterprises. But the question arises: if the NCAA is protecting student athletes from being exploited by professional and commercial enterprises, who is protecting student-athletes from being exploited by the NCAA? Currently, nobody is. So as we enjoy the basketball game on Monday night, take what you see with a grain of salt: be aware that the players who are putting their heart and soul into their sport and their team are being exploited by the very institutions whose names are plastered on the front of the jerseys.
Kevin Churchill is currently working on his Masters thesis at Carleton University, and his work focuses on the philosophical concept of exploitation He also just ended his career as a basketball player at Carleton by winning a fourth consecutive national championship. You can find him on twitter @kchurch41.