Are Student-Athletes Being Exploited?

Over the past week, there has been a ratcheting up between commentators of the debate over the exploitation (or not) of college student-athletes.  ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser and Keith Olbermann had a discussion on this topic, which prompted a rant (first few minutes) from the same network’s Colin Cowherd the next day.  To sum these up if you don’t have 10 minutes to listen to them, Mr. Kornheiser and Mr. Olbermann think the entire college athletics financial model is a crooked sham which needs to be blown up because the kids (student-athletes) are being taken advantage of.  Mr. Cowherd, on the other hand, thinks the outrage is being over dramatized, and objects to the comparison of college athletes to exploited child workers.

Here’s the thing: there can be degrees of impact from illegal labor practices, and the fact one is worse than the other doesn’t mean the better one isn’t also illegal.  Mr. Cowherd talks about a shoe factory kid working in Honduras for almost nothing, which obviously represents harsher labor practices than what is happening with college athletes in the United States.  In fact, I would venture to say that example is harsher than just about anything we see or read about in the U.S. in any industry.  Does that mean there haven’t been illegal labor practices here which have received and/or need redress?  Of course not.

The fact that college athletes aren’t in a Honduras shoe factory doesn’t mean they aren’t being taken advantage of by a broken system.  Furthermore, it’s concerning that some of the arguments gaining traction against lifting compensation restrictions are rooted in the idea they are compensated plenty as it is.  Who gets to decide what is plenty?  Right now it is the universities (both individually and collectively as the NCAA) and nobody else.  Student-athletes have no say, and worse, neither does the free market.  Is this American capitalism at work?  It sure doesn’t seem like it.

Mr. Cowherd’s other argument you can hear at about the 9:30 mark, and it’s actually fantastic.  He talks about how the public often confuses revenue for profit, and goes up in arms about the revenue numbers of big-time college athletic departments and pro sports teams, but never considers the costs to operate.   It’s a great monologue and he is 100% correct, which is why it’s odd that he comes to the conclusions he does.

Yes, Ohio State football brings in a ton of revenue and yes, they have a ton of expenses (coaches, staff, gameday crew, trainers, food, etc.) that eat into that revenue dramatically.  So Ohio State football is in many ways like many other successful businesses, where profit is a small percentage of revenue.  There is one massive difference: every other business has to pay it’s labor force, with any compensation caps being negotiated with the labor force itself (or through a union).  It’s these costs Mr. Cowherd trumpets as the unseen realities of running a business, yet at the same time costs he doesn’t seem to think universities should have to bear.  Is it not odd that every single person associated with bringing us college sports is being paid a market wage, with the exception of the talent on the field?

As this debate rages on, I’ve simply yet to hear a compelling case for why it’s legal, let alone right, to fix the compensation of student-athletes at a given level without a collective bargaining process.  I’m open to one if it comes along, so please feel free to comment or email me your thoughts.  Just know that “because,” “it’s always been this way,” “it’s supposed to be amateur,” etc. have been said and rejected.  Now we can add “not as bad as a Honduras shoe factory” to the list.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *