A World Without College Football Revenue?

As usual, the coming of fall signifies the beginning of football season. It's not just the NFL we'll be watching, of course - college games are also underway. But this year's season brings with it an unusual amount of scandal, and perhaps a little more attention than usual to the oft-repeated question: how should college sports treat their athletes?

by Eric Garneau

college football controversy

Serious Controversy

In the middle of August 2011, one of the largest college football scandals in recent memory was broken by Yahoo! Sports reporter Charles Robinson. According to Robinson's article, U of Miami booster Nevin Shaprio - already imprisoned for his role in a $930 million Ponzi scheme - had been funneling illicit benefits to school athletes from 2002-2010. Among those benefits: money, clothes and even prostitutes.

Though it's not uncommon for boosters to provide student athletes with some kind of compensation (despite NCAA rules strictly forbidding it), Shapiro's violations were especially egregious. In an August 30, 2011 National Public Radio interview, former NFL agent Josh Luchs said of the scandal that it 'shocked even me, and there wasn't much I hadn't seen.'

A Conflicted Culture

Why are these situations so common? The answer's complicated, but we can begin to understand it by looking at the situation that many NCAA student athletes find themselves in. A 2010 study conducted by the National College Players Association showed that, on average, student athletes receiving a full scholarship to a school were left with a $2,951 shortfall per year, with ranges of various schools running from $200-$10,962. At the same time, players are barely allowed to hold off-campus jobs, since most of their time is divided between classes, practice, games and travel. Players do receive a stipend, but it's often not enough to overcome those shortfalls. That creates a difficult situation, and one ripe for exploiting.

For many critics, the problem lies with the NCAA itself, especially its top two sports, football and basketball. Though ostensibly they feature amateur athletes, they're packaged and sold like professional sports to the mass media. Players aren't allowed to get paid, but TV stations are, and advertising revenue from top college games are surely as significant as those between lesser pro competitors, especially in areas where no pro sports teams really exist. Consider: in 2010, CBS signed an $11 billion contract with the NCAA. By comparison, just a half hour before this article's writing, ESPN finalized a $15.2 billion dollar deal for Monday Night Football. The latter deal is certainly larger, but the two are in the same ballpark.

Money Management

So where does the NCAA spend all their funds? According to their own website, 60% of their revenue is fed to Division I schools, supporting financial aid for athletes, salaries for coaches, building maintenance and rental, travel and more. The other 40% runs back to the NCAA itself, to 'support Association championships, programs and services.' The NCAA's website has a more full breakdown of their revenue and expenditures.

Should the NCAA better provide for its players? To actually pay them, the argument goes, would be to risk commoditizing them, which would only conflict with their college experience. But others would answer back: aren't they commodities anyway? What did the NCAA sell to CBS if not players in a game? In a way it seems abusive to draft $11 billion deals when the stars of those deals don't see many of the benefits.

The issue of how to best treat NCAA student athletes, especially in football and basketball, is not one likely to go away any time soon. Many argue that the NCAA operates on an inherent contradiction: their charges are athletes when it comes to marketing, but students everywhere else. As long as that contradiction persists, boosters like Nevin Shapiro will continue to take advantage of the system, and NCAA players will continue to accept illicit donations - some out of a serious economic need.

Read our interview with professional football player Keith Miller, who transitioned from a sports career to one in opera.

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