As Cal football enters its 132nd season of play, the UC Berkeley community — students, faculty, staff, administrators and alumni — should take a long look at the NCAA system the school finds itself a member of and ask: Is this lawful? Is this fair? Is this right?
As a member of the NCAA, Cal ascribes to and enforces the principles of amateurism, which dictate that athletes must not be compensated above the level of their cost to attend school. To be sure, having one’s educational expenses fully covered, provided the education is actually being provided, is incredibly valuable. Unfortunately, for a large swath of Cal football players, educational achievement is an issue of grave concern.
According to the NCAA’s latest graduation data, only 55 percent of Cal football players ultimately earn a degree, and only 34 percent of Cal’s Black male athletes — who comprise a large majority of Cal football players — make it to graduation. Even though these rates have improved from years past, they are no less sobering, especially given the fact that NCAA athletes’ “compensation” is supposed to be a meaningful education.
What makes this state of affairs all the more troubling are the vast sums of money these players generate for the campus — little of which ultimately trickles down to them. In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016, the Cal football program reported revenues of $41,527,030, according to disclosures filed with the Department of Education. With the team’s total expenses totaling $22,079,265, that means that each of the school’s 85 full-scholarship football players generated $228,979.24 in profit for the athletics department. By rule, however, these players are limited to receiving a full cost-of-attendance scholarship; the UC Berkeley admissions office calculated those costs at $34,200 and $60,882 for in- and out-of-state students, respectively.
The numbers here are just as startling as the graduation figures above. For California resident football players, the value of the direct benefits they receive for their football services is a mere 14.9 percent of the profit they generate on an annual basis. For out-of-state players, the percentage is slightly higher (26.5 percent), but the gap between what Cal football players generate for the school and what they receive in turn is still cavernous. For young men who risk their long-term health to act essentially as marketers for the campus, there is little room to categorize this exchange as fair. Cal football players have earned far more than just a free education.
Many have argued that it is both imprudent to increase college athletes’ pay — because players already get “enough” — and impossible, given the prevailing view that the overwhelming majority of athletic departments are “broke.”
The notion that most collegiate athletic departments have no money with which to pay their athletes directly is a self-serving myth propagated by those seeking to maintain the often-exploitative status quo in college sports. The reality is that athletic departments are not broke and rather have collusively agreed with one another to spend their resources on budget items other than athlete pay. Nowhere is this more evident than at UC Berkeley, which has spent wildly on stadium upgrades and coach salaries over the past several years.
The campus’s now-infamous renovation to Memorial Stadium will ultimately cost the school nearly a half billion dollars — money that could have been put toward increased benefits for athletes. Even taking just a quarter of the money of the money to be spent on the Memorial Stadium upgrades and applying it toward the athletes who will play in it would mean that each of Cal’s 85 scholarship football players could, over the next 278 seasons, be paid $5,000 a year for the institution’s use of their name, image and likeness, otherwise known as “NIL.”
Even since it became apparent that the Memorial Stadium project would be an unmitigated financial disaster, UC Berkeley has still spent tens of millions on its football coaching staff. This includes a near-$6 million buyout for former head coach Sonny Dykes, who was fired in January. Again, just allocating half of that money towards NIL payments to players would mean $5,000-per-year awards could be made continuously for the next 7 years.
Do not be misled: UC Berkeley absolutely has the resources with which to directly pay its football players, but chooses to divert those resources toward gold-plating facilities and lining the pockets of coaches.
As for the argument that college football players already receive “enough” and therefore do not deserve further compensation, there are two key issues. One: this line of reasoning is predicated on the notion that athletes are being paid in an education, which is supposedly more than sufficient compensation for their football services. But, as outlined above, UC Berkeley is failing to provide that education to nearly half of its football players. Moreover, as one sports economist has put it, the only time when “enough” seems to be the standard for compensation is when it’s discussed in relation to charity, children and chattel. For all others, including college coaches, pay is market-driven. If college athletes truly do receive “enough,” let their compensation test the free market.
Where does all this leave many of Cal’s football players? In the unenviable position of having neither a meaningful degree nor any financial gain from the athletic services they rendered to the campus. The institution is not only failing, but exploiting these young men, and campus leaders must reckon with their complicity in this debasement of the academy.
Cameron Miller is a 2016 graduate of Stanford University who lives in Berkeley.