Today’s guest columnist is journalist Brad Wolverton, host of the Sports Scholarship Stories podcast.
As a reporter covering the O’Bannon v. NCAA trial in 2014—a case challenging the NCAA’s limits on athlete pay—I felt like I was witnessing a historic shift in power between the suits in charge of college sports and the players whose labor they depend on.
After Ed O’Bannon’s victory, which allowed athletes to be compensated for the commercial use of their images, even bigger cracks appeared in the amateur façade. Judging from everything that’s happened since then, one would think that the entire NCAA system was crumbling, with the association’s power apparently diminishing and athletes gaining untold rights and riches.
That’s not the narrative I’m seeing.
It is true that the NCAA’s losses in O’Bannon v. NCAA and NCAA v. Alston, along with new state laws, have allowed college athletes to begin monetizing their name, image and likeness and have given players additional education-related benefits. But as the NCAA’s pie has gotten exponentially bigger, most athletes’ share of that pie still amounts to crumbs.
Yes, some superstars are getting their bag: One five-star football recruit in the 2023 class will reportedly make $2 million/year, thanks to a wealthy booster collective. Increasing numbers of star football and basketball players—including Nijel Pack, who’s pulling in $400,000 a year the next two seasons at the University of Miami—are making money that’s on par with top NBA G League players. And South Carolina’s women’s basketball team, the defending national champs, just signed an NIL deal giving each player $25,000 this season.
But consider that major conference coffers are bulging. In August, the Big Ten finalized a seven-year, $7-billion-plus media-rights package, worth more than double its 2016 deal. The latest agreement will distribute up to $100 million a year to each Big Ten school.
In contrast, the average NCAA athlete has pocketed just $3,711 in NIL money, according to Opendorse, a platform that facilitates NIL deals for athletes. That’s more than they could make bagging groceries, but it’s hardly enough to cover a used truck.
The headlines about six- and seven-figure player payouts are obscuring the fact that—on more important health and equity matters—big-time athletic departments are continuing to shortchange athletes.
During my decade covering college sports until 2016, I spent much of my time exploring inequities in the NCAA system, including reports of coaches meddling in athletes’ medical decisions and players making do with miniscule scholarships. Those same problems continue to persist today, as players lack true health and safety protections and fair compensation for their work.
One way the NCAA attempts to distract from how it’s lining its pockets on unfairly compensated athlete labor is by touting the more than $2 billion a year in athletic scholarships its member schools hand out. But the NCAA’s use of scholarships as an altruistic defense shines the spotlight on another problem: the complexity and lack of transparency surrounding athletic aid.
Over the years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people—from academic advisors to athletic trainers to whistleblowers—and I understand what life is like inside big-time athletic departments. But I have rarely encountered a system as flawed as the multibillion-dollar athletic recruiting industry.
That’s why I’ve decided to chronicle NCAA sports again through a new podcast called Sports Scholarship Stories, which explores the business of athletic recruiting through the lens of former NCAA scholarship athletes and insiders. The show builds on an article I wrote on the subject, “The Myth of the Sports Scholarship.”
As I’ve focused my attention on athletic recruiting, I realize what a maze it is for parents and kids, and how poor of a view some former scholarship athletes have of coaches.
“To put it most succinctly, the coaches are trying to get you for as little money as possible—they’re cheap, basically,” Allison Goldblatt, a former UCLA and UNC swimmer, told me in the podcast’s first episode.
I’m not naive enough to think my podcast will fix the problems with athletic recruiting. But by elevating athletes’ voices, I’m hoping to help more families understand the realities of athletic aid.
Coaches and athletic directors have a far bigger responsibility. And if they have any interest in changing the negative narratives, they need to become more transparent with families and find more creative ways to share the huge pile of cash they’re sitting on with the athletes who’ve helped them earn it.
Brad Wolverton is a former senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. You can follow him on Twitter, where he welcomes your DMs and insights on athletic aid.