Broke college athletes

Sports with Sophie

We’ve all seen those NCAA commercials — the ones showcasing the hard work of the swimmers, track runners and football players who also excel in the classroom while the announcer proclaims: “There are over 400,000 NCAA student athletes, and just about all of us will be going pro in something other than sports.” The ad is touching and true. In NCAA football, only 1.6 percent of the more than 70,000 players who participate yearly will go to their sport’s top pro league. And that number is even lower for NCAA men’s basketball (1.1 percent) and NCAA men’s soccer (1.4 percent).

But here’s something you may not have seen: Nigel Hayes, the star of the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team, holding up a sign on ESPN’s “College GameDay” reading “Broke College Athlete. Anything Helps.” Satirically attached below was a Venmo account where people could send funds (it was later confirmed all money sent to the account was donated to charity).

How are these things connected? Well, those ads are right: Most NCAA athletes will not move on to compete professionally in their sport. That means they need to graduate and obtain jobs after graduating. But these men and women have committed huge amounts of their life to their sport and, at best, may only get a scholarship for their efforts — a scholarship that might not even lead to graduation or future employment.

In reality, college athletes graduate at a far lower rate than normal students: It was found that men’s Division I basketball players have a 23 percent lower graduation rate than other students.

And if many athletes aren’t graduating, that means the NCAA “paying” them through their education is merely a way to rip off student-athletes. The NCAA uses them for their skill and revenue-making abilities without providing them with the means necessary to provide for themselves in a life outside of athletics.

While high-caliber athletes make a massive amount of money for their universities — the Journal of Sports Economics found that a five-star men’s basketball recruit brings in at least $625,000 annually for their school — they see very little of this money in the short or long run. In that same study, researchers found that fair compensation for a five-star recruit, even taking into account that the value of a scholarship and training services would amount to about $120,000 a year, would be about $613,000 per year.

Considering that the median yearly household income in the United States is around $56,000, that yearly sum of $613,000 may be a life-altering amount.

Paying these athletes even a fraction of the revenue that they generate for the school would provide them with a cushion for the future — a future that, might I add, could be filled with outstanding medical expenses thanks to the beating their bodies have taken through years of intense athletic competition.

Intense athletic competition also does something else: It hinders athletes from being able to find time to commit themselves fully to their school work or to outside jobs that could provide them with some much-needed cash. Taking into account that many athletes commit close to 40 or more hours per week to their sport, it’s almost inconceivable that one could keep up with their schoolwork, let alone generate a life-sustaining income for themselves. In many sports, though, scholarships are few and far between. In NCAA baseball, teams can offer only 11.7 scholarships to rosters that average 35 players, limiting the amount of members who can attend and receive an education worth their athletic commitment.

At institutions like Wisconsin, which demand a high level of academic performance, there simply isn’t enough time in the day for athletes to commit themselves fully to their education which, in most cases, is more central to their future than their athletics are.

And the ways in which many of these athletes could generate a revenue — through endorsements or the marketing of their personal items — are banned by the NCAA. In a way, then, the NCAA is allowed to use their athletes’ images but their athletes aren’t allowed to use their own, taking away the potential for athletes to make some extra money.

Further, Wisconsin’s athletics department, which purports to pay Hayes back through his education and a small yearly stipend, only transferred $11.5 million to the university — which could go to things such as improved instructors, smaller class sizes and better learning spaces and tools — out of an operating budget that is more than 10 times that. This insinuates that the cultivation of Hayes’ education, and that of every other NCAA student-athlete at the University of Wisconsin, is worth 10 times less than the cultivation of their athletics.

Hayes is not the first, and most certainly will not be the last, athlete to raise this issue. Famously, the Fab Five protested their nonpayment by wearing warm-ups that omitted both the Nike symbol and the University of Michigan logo. But the fact that the Fab Five protested in the early 1990s and that the problem persists today is emblematic of a bigger issue in the NCAA. Student-athletes are being used for profits at the expense of their education and future success — and the NCAA, whose very mission is to cultivate well-rounded student-athletes, doesn’t seem to care.

Sophie Goethals writes the column about social issues in the world of sports and their potential ramifications. Contact her at [email protected]