It’s remarkable to see the reaction — the outrage — of some college football and basketball fans/observers when they see athletes ask for changes to the antiquated model of college sports, changes that would bump that model toward more favorable treatment of athletes, toward a more equitable distribution of resources created by and made possible by them.
A group of Pac-12 athletes, followed by players from both the Big Ten and the Mountain West conferences, recently made a list of demands that would better their circumstances, threatening to opt out of playing if those demands were not met. Throwing that out in the midst of a pandemic, adding one more problem to the current stack mounting for universities, might not be the most reasonable timing. On the other hand, how reasonable have NCAA responses been at various times in the past?
Those demands range from protection against COVID-19 to better safety-and-health standards to extended health insurance to racial equality in college sports. They include freedom to transfer one time unrestricted to being allowed to return to college to play after entering the draft to sending a small percentage of revenue to minority communities in need to not eliminating various sports on account of finances, given the huge endowments many schools harbor. They suggest sharing half of each sport’s conference revenue with athletes and lowering the huge salaries paid to coaches and administrators and commissioners, among other things.
The response by many fans — and likely the powers that be, the ones reaping so many of the benefits sown by athletes on the fields and on the courts — to such insistences has been harsh.
Many of them cry out, in the name of preserving college sports, for those athletes essentially to shut up and be happy with what they’ve got.
Somehow, those attitudes and responses have been put in place. They have been stoked now and through the years by the glorification of amateurism, the idea that not surrendering more benefits (read: money) to college athletes makes the endeavor more pure. The reality is, it squashes the liability that institutions otherwise would face were they held accountable to a different standard. That’s what universities have been fighting against since their sponsoring of sports began so many decades ago.
Meanwhile, those schools and conferences and associations gather in millions and billions of dollars, via gate receipts, concession sales, sponsorship deals, advertising revenue, television contracts and donations primarily generated by boosters eager to see their alma maters win, all while the NCAA governs and restricts athletes from getting what they otherwise might.
Without the talents and performances of said athletes, none of the aforementioned would be possible.
And when they over the years have called for greater compensation, beyond scholarships and stipends, say for their own names, images and likenesses, or for other bennies, some people in positions of power and some fans freak out, as though those spoiled brats are threatening to ruin all of college sports and that they should simply be grateful for what they’ve already got.
It’s understandable — not justifiable — that institutions, which are receiving cheap labor, might respond that way. Same goes for administrators and coaches, a great number of whom are making millions of dollars annually in salary and bonuses. Millions and millions. The discrepancy between what top coaches get and what is given to their top players, who are generating their successes, is beyond substantial — even in cases where some of those athletes are receiving under-the-table payouts from boosters or shoe companies or other sources that the NCAA wishes it could get a grip on.
The astounding thing, though, is the reaction of so many of the fans, lovers of college sports, the ones who so greatly relish the participation, the winning, watching the athletes do the work. They are willing to wear the players’ jerseys, to ravenously cheer them on, to find connection with them. But when it comes to athletes’ concerns for more advantageous treatment, then … well, those ingrates are messing everything over.
“I worked my way through college,” some of them say. “I got up at 5 a.m. to clean toilets and scrub floors so I could earn enough to pay tuition and get my education. I earned it. I did it the hard way. Why should these players, who already are getting tuition and books and housing paid for, get anything more?”
Here’s why: They have valuable, marketable, unique abilities and talents that you didn’t have. They can do things that you couldn’t do. Many of them have worked and sacrificed to hone those talents, sharpening them to the point where schools want and need them in order to field their teams, to win their games, to attract attention, to gain donations, to benefit from conference and network deals and all the goodies that go with that winning.
It certainly can be argued that those athletes gain advantage, too, by playing for prominent football or basketball programs, programs that draw attention to them that they otherwise might not draw while playing, for example, for some minor league outfit somewhere. That’s true.
But how much gain would universities get from sports programs that were not successful, that did not have the athletes necessary to attract the schools’ own substantial advantages?
Nowhere near as much.
That’s why so many schools — not all, but many, maybe even the ones for which you root — plow the money they do into their programs, into their own pockets. And when they reap the rewards, in the form of millions and millions of dollars, that’s fine, that’s dandy. That’s just part of the system. That’s the way the world works.
But when athletes want better health benefits or more reasonable opportunities or more flexibility or — OK, let’s say it — more money, then a massive pushback comes. It’s acceptable for the institutions to pull in what they can, acceptable for a commissioner to get upward of $5 million a year in salary, acceptable for some coaches to make $7 million a year, but those damn athletes? The ones attempting to corrupt college sports?
They can pound sand because concerned observers who lacked their abilities when they went to school had to report for their minimum-wage jobs every morning when they were students, because too many of them have been sold — and bought into — the glorification of amateurism, a calculated ruse from the beginning.
No way will these athletes get all the demands they seek.
But they should get some of them. And they should get them without being accused of greedily ruining the games that other people are so happy to take advantage of, or to pay for and to enjoy.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.