Today’s guest author is Ellen J. Staurowsky, professor of sports media at Ithaca College.
The employment status and fair compensation of college athletes are being discussed in state legislatures, U.S. Congress, federal agencies—such as the National Labor Relations Board—and federal courts. As scrutiny intensifies on the NCAA, the Power Five conferences and the Division I schools, there is an ever-increasing need for transparency and accuracy regarding where money is generated, how it is spent and on whom.
In an April 2021 Associated Press survey of 357 NCAA Division I college athletic directors, nearly 90% were either strongly opposed (69%) or somewhat opposed (19.6%) to sharing revenue with college athletes. That opposition has been tied to a position that sharing revenue with the athletes threatens the college athletics financial model and would lead to significant cuts to non-revenue sports—code for most women’s sports and sports other than football and men’s basketball.
Athletic directors have also been largely unified in criticizing one of the sources of data often used to calculate the loss of value for college athlete labor—data from the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA) survey.
The EADA requires colleges and universities to provide an annual report that documents how money is allocated to men’s and women’s teams, to show if a school that receives federal money treats college athletes equally. The report includes the number of athletic participation opportunities and number of athletes; percent and amount of athletically related financial aid; amount of recruiting dollars; number of head, assistant, part-time, and volunteer coaches; salaries of coaches reported in the aggregate and by full-time equivalent (FTE) average; game day expenses by sport and gender; and total expenses and revenues by gender as well as non-gender specific allocations.
Schools are required to make those reports available to anyone who requests them and to post them publicly. The EADA reports can also be accessed through the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics Data Analysis website.
Even with its limitations, the EADA has served the public good by providing a much-needed window into the broad financial inner workings of college sport programs, and it has served its consumer protection purpose in its simplicity. In a time when athletic programs are lobbying state legislatures to gain exceptions to public disclosure laws, the EADA stands as the only national repository of financial information about them. Regardless of whether the EADA could be adjusted to provide a more complete financial picture, the general trends exposed by the available data have repeatedly proven accurate.
The EADA’s critics claim the survey is potentially offering an inflated view of what revenue can be shared because it does not include net revenue. The NCAA’s managing director of research, Todd Petr, testified in National Collegiate Athletic Association Grant-in-Aid Cap Litigation in 2018 that data from the EADA was unreliable.
There are several things that are both revealing and troubling about that approach. The first is the contention among college sport officials that they played no role in the initial shaping of the EADA. The need for the EADA arose when schools and courts realized in 1992, upon the 20th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, that schools were spurning their obligations. A gender equity study conducted by the NCAA that year revealed that men had access to 70% of varsity sport opportunities, and that men’s sports received 70% of athletic scholarship funding, 77% of operating budgets and 83% of recruiting dollars. The authors of the study described the findings as “disturbing.”
At the time, only Washington State University (WSU) had achieved compliance in athletics, because their women athletes sued and the institution lost. As WSU assistant athletic director Harold C. Gibson observed at the time, “We were dragged kicking and screaming into the forefront.”
In 1993, in response to college sport officials publicly resisting Title IX compliance, Cardiss Collins (D-IL), chair of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and Competitiveness, proposed the EADA as a consumer protection measure fashioned after the Student Right to Know Act (an act that requires disclosure of information regarding graduation rates). The act was passed in 1994.
Before 1994, reports on NCAA member school revenues and expenses had been executed independently. After the passage of the EADA in 1994, the NCAA countered with the MFRS and produced the report in-house. While the MFRS is more comprehensive than the EADA, access to the report requires individual Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests if schools do not share their reports publicly. Given that roughly 32% of institutions in NCAA Division I are private, decisions to share that information are left up to the institutions, a prospect that is highly unlikely.
In the 1970s, when the then-all-men’s NCAA opposed the application of Title IX to athletic programs, one of the favored talking points suggested that equitable opportunities for women athletes would kill football, evoking an image metaphorically referred to as the “goose that laid the golden egg.” By 1985, the college football juggernaut was taking off with global companies including ESPN and Nike reaping the benefits.
In turn, the NCAA has leaned on a similar refrain in defense of restrictions on athlete compensation. In O’Bannon v. NCAA, it argued, among other things, that if football and men’s basketball players were awarded more compensation, the “viability of other sports” would be threatened. In a March 2023 U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing titled “Taking the Buzzer Beater to the Bank: Protecting College Athletes’ NIL Dealmaking Rights,” Patriot League Commissioner Jennifer Hepple testified that the prospect of college athletes becoming employees “would likely represent a breaking point for the sponsorship of athletic programs at Patriot League institutions.”
There is a lesson here: Stay focused on the real issue, not on the handwringing that compensating college athletes will bring down the enterprise. The NCAA, conference commissioners and college sport officials have been incredibly adept at weaving tales of destruction that generally signal financial windfalls in the making. Responding to those claims requires data, and the EADA is currently the only national source of that data that does not require a FOIA request.
Dr. Ellen J. Staurowsky is a professor in sports media in the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College. She is internationally recognized as an expert on social justice issues in sport which include gender equity and Title IX, pay equity and equal employment opportunity, and college athletes’ rights. She is co-author of the book, College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA Amateur Myth (Praeger Press) and the forthcoming book, The NCAA and the Exploitation of College Profit Athletes: An Amateurism That Never Was (University of South Carolina Press).