Today’s guest columnists are Nathan Kalman-Lamb, Derek Silva and Johanna Mellis.
There appears to be no shortage of cash flow these days in the world of big-time college sports. Massive new contracts are seemingly signed daily, including a new $100 million deal for Brian Kelly at LSU, a $95 million extension for Michigan State’s Mel Tucker, an $80 million deal for Miami’s Mario Cristobal, and a stunning, albeit dubiously reported, $110 million deal for Lincoln Riley at USC.
For the athletes who perform the work that produces the lucrative spectacle, however, the rules are different. The NCAA’s new draft constitution makes clear that “student-athletes may not be compensated by a member institution for participating in a sport.”
As Mason Forbes, a Harvard basketball player, put it, “In spite of the deliberate mystification of this parasitic relationship, the extraction of wealth generated by athletes continues to be laid bare through the egregious salaries of NCAA coaches gloated in our faces.”
Forbes is not the only person to take note. In a recent interview about the employment rights of college athletes, the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, Jennifer Abruzzo, said: “Under the common law the test is very simple. Are the players performing services for their college, and does that college have significant control or the right of control over the aspects of their daily work/playing lives? For me, they do.” Those words augur a potential revolution of the amateurism model that has governed college sport for decades—a model that produces $18.9 billion in annual revenue for the NCAA, universities, coaches and administrators.
It’s clear that athletics department officials are paying attention. In a recent press release, LEAD1, an organization representing FBS athletic directors nationwide, stated: “85% of athletics directors surveyed answered that they are highly concerned about college athletes being classified as employees… with possible corresponding benefits and protections such as the rights to organize, strike, overtime pay, minimum wage, health and safety protections, and more.”
We talked to 13 current and former campus athletic workers about how they felt about the LEAD1 release and the lavish contracts being handed out to coaches. Some athletes have been granted anonymity out of fear of reprisal.
Athletes weren’t confused about the power dynamics at play in college sport. “ADs are concerned because that would involve a transfer of power to the athletes that are currently powerless,” says Eric, a former FBS football player.
Notably, athletic directors are among those who benefit most from amateurism. Fifty-one athletic directors currently earn $700,000 or more per year, and 25 of those receive $1 million or more.
Players don’t see even a meaningful fraction of that compensation and are instead told they have new opportunities afforded by NIL. But athletes such as Forbes aren’t taken in. “This move,” he said, “which encourages athletes to craft and capitalize off of a personal ‘brand,’ further masks the reality of athlete exploitation by shifting the burden onto players.”
Indeed, buyout figures for coaches are startling. Between 2010 and 2021, $533.6 million was paid to fire football and basketball coaches. This year, a total of $90.4 million has been paid out to fired college football coaches, with LSU, Washington, USC, Florida and TCU each spending $9.9 million or more. At Miami, those buyouts are subsidized by a university health care system that saw increased revenue during the pandemic.
“Watching the boom in coaching salaries this year feels like a slap in the face to the players,” says current Power 5 football player Christian. “For the past year, schools across the country have been pointing to how empty their pockets are when faced with the idea of sharing revenue with athletes. But all of a sudden, they are coming up with millions to fire and hire new coaches.” Indeed, while LSU athletics reported a loss of $81 million during the pandemic, they paid more than $16 million to buy out coach Ed Orgeron before signing Kelly to his nine-figure deal.
Kobe, a current FBS football player, was disturbed by the LEAD1 remarks. “They want to get us to their school to make them millions of dollars, but they don’t want to give us rights that other ‘employees’ receive,” he said, “even though the majority of us put in more hours and bring in more revenue than some employees.” The IRS defines full-time employment as 30 or more hours worked in a week. Self-reported data compiled by the NCAA reveals 19 sports would qualify as full-time; FBS players work a median of 40 hours per week.
No conversation about exploitation and college sports is complete without a discussion of race. Notably, 75% of athletic directors in the Power Five conferences are white. “This sport is ruled overwhelmingly by white folks, and those that play are overwhelmingly black,” says former Clemson cornerback Danté Stewart. This disparity has contributed to an estimated $17-$21 billion transfer of wealth from black athletes at Power Five schools over a 15-year period, culminating in 2019.
For former UCLA soccer player Kaiya McCullough, the fact that athletic directors do not want athletes “to have the right to advocate for themselves on their own health and wellness, education, or livelihood, shows that these power brokers are prioritizing money and power over the wellbeing of the athletes.” That’s exactly why Grace, a current D-I track and field athlete, is resigned to the reality that athletic directors “are going to keep causing problems to hold onto their power and money, and these problems are just going to keep trickling down onto the athletes.” Jeannette, a former D-I gymnast, agrees: “I am concerned, alarmed and terrified that athletes’ voices continue to be suppressed and silenced.”
This is precisely why NIL cannot be viewed as a moral reset for college sports. What it amounts to, on the contrary, is a new weapon in the arsenal of universities and administrators to discipline and control athletic labor. In Forbes’ formulation, it is nothing more than “sleight of hand by the NCAA” designed “to excuse our exploitation, individualizing players and discouraging us from realizing our common cause in organizing to receive fair compensation and protections for our labor.”
The question is whether this time it will work.
Nathan Kalman-Lamb is a lecturing fellow at Duke University and author of Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport. Derek Silva is an associate professor of sociology at King’s University College. Johanna Mellis is an assistant professor of history at Ursinus College. The three are co-hosts of The End of Sport podcast.
(This article has been corrected in the first paragraph to reflect that Brian Kelly’s new contract is with LSU.)