An End to Exploitation of Athletes

A court ruling could spell the end of the “amateur” status of top-flight American college sports.


A federal judge in California has struck a blow against the amateur status of college athletes playing in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) competitions. The ruling, if it is upheld on appeal, will pave the way for college athletes to earn money from image rights, something that GAA players have been doing for years. For the first time, a student athlete whose likeness appears in a video game will be able to earn a share of the millions of dollars generated by it.

Big time college sports have been controversial in America for quite some time, and not just because of the NCAA’s amateur status. College campuses have become home to shiny, modern, opulent stadiums that would not look out of place on the professional sporting circuit. The highest paid staff in some universities are not world-renowned professors but basketball and gridiron football coaches. Indeed coaches are the highest paid public employees in some states, the highest earning $5.6 million per year, with Athletic Directors and assistant coaches earning seven figure sums. Under pressure from influential alumni who see sporting success as essential to maintaining a school’s prestige, massive amounts of resources are poured into what is essentially a source of on-site entertainment for undergraduate students.

Observers from Europe are taken aback by the sheer scale of American college sports. While in the rest of the world college sports are student-led, part-time, extracurricular activities used by students as a means of socializing and staying in shape, top-flight US college sports are the gateway to a potentially lucrative career in the professional leagues. Attendances of 100,000 at football games are not unheard of, some stadiums have a capacity of 170,000. College basketball’s March Madness, which generates $800 million in revenue, dominates televised sport and is the subject of betting pools in workplaces all over the country.

Meanwhile many “student” athletes are enrolled by colleges purely for their athletic abilities and not on academic merit. Sports scholarships offer a pathway to a college education for athletically inclined students, but their academic goals are secondary to their sporting ambitions. 

The NCAA has become an all-powerful institution, but it was not always so. College football teams used to negotiate their own broadcasting rights with television networks. Prior to 1951, Notre Dame and Penn State themselves negotiated with television networks for the broadcasting rights to their games and kept the revenue. The NCAA stepped in and insisted that they should hold the broadcasting rights and only they could negotiate with the networks. If Notre Dame and Penn did not comply and hand the rights over to the NCAA, the two teams would be expelled from all NCAA-sanctioned games against other colleges and deprived of what had become a lucrative source of income. The two universities had no choice but to agree and the NCAA immediately became a very wealthy organization.

Today it posts revenues in excess of $10.5 billion per year, more than the National Football League (NFL), the largest of the big four American sports leagues. It has palatial headquarters and a large paid staff of executives earning substantial salaries. Critics point out that this wealth is built on what is essentially the indentured servitude of vulnerable young athletes who are forced to accept grueling working hours in the hope of progressing to professional sports careers.

NCAA rules prevent a student athlete from earning money from any products that use their personal image. They are not permitted to earn a wage on a pay-for-play basis, there are heavy restrictions on gifts that they can accept, and they are limited to accepting free tuition plus room and board. If a coach buys a player lunch, that is a violation of NCAA rules and could in theory see a scholarship being revoked. The result is many student athletes living in poverty while working long hours in professional-level training with the bare minimum class time thrown in. Indeed the academic merits of many courses attended by athletes is questionable to say the least, and academic fraud is said to be rife. The problem is further compounded by NCAA rules that prevent student athletes from claiming compensation for on-the-job injuries that they would be entitled to in any other line of work, the argument being that they are not employees but unpaid amateurs. This is a big problem for a sport like gridiron football where injuries, particularly concussions, are becoming a major concern because of their long-term effects.

The NCAA defends this situation by maintaining the fiction that the students are playing the sport purely for the love of the game. While this was enough to deny compensation to injured players in the past, the Californian federal judge is no longer buying that argument. 

If this opens up the pathway to pay-for-play, is it another case of yet another sport played for the love of the game falling to the inevitable commercial pressures of professionalism? It most certainly is not. While club sports in less popular pastimes remain student-led activities, big time US college sports have been raking in huge sums of money for decades, much of it flowing into the pockets of NCAA executives and college athletics departments who have then splashed out on the massive concrete and steel arenas in which this sham is played out. Less than a third of the NCAA’s money goes to scholarships and other players’ financial aid, nowhere near enough to allow the students to get by in some degree of comfort commensurate with the value they generate.

If the NCAA wanted to lend some hint of truth to the idea of students playing the sport for the love of the game, it could have tried to position itself as a community-based organization that reinvests all of its surplus cash at grassroots level, enabling communities to further grow their recreational sports facilities. But the NCAA is no GAA. Instead it has established itself as the launch pad for careers in the professional leagues. NFL players must complete three years playing college football. National Basketball Association (NBA) players must be at least 19 years old, making it difficult to get into without experience in the college game. The professional leagues and the NCAA also cooperate by avoiding scheduling clashes, playing college games on a Saturday and professional games on a Sunday.

Meanwhile in Ireland, critics of the GAA’s broadcasting deal with British Sky Television lament that it is a step towards professionalism and a sign of the association’s “greed.” However anyone who accuses the GAA of “greed” usually does not know how the association works. Unlike the NCAA, the GAA has only a very small paid staff, and once the overheads are paid the remainder of the money, over 85 percent, is reinvested back into the association where it makes life better for communities worldwide. The extra revenue brought in by the Sky deal, less than $2 million, quickly spreads thin around 32 Irish county boards and half a dozen international units, nowhere near enough to sustain even a semi-professional setup.

The GAA’s amateur status is quite different from that of the NCAA. In the NCAA the players are not paid because of a cartel that has been set up to hoard its substantial revenues. In the GAA the players are not paid because not only is it not economically viable, but because the GAA’s amateur status is the real deal. “Amateur” comes from the Latin “amare”, to love. Gaelic games are played by those who genuinely love the game, and because of the association’s unique structure they actually do hail from the communities and the places being represented on the field. While there are legitimate concerns about the workload being put on inter-county players and steps have been taken to deal with player burnout, the GAA is the last holdout of sport played not because of commercial imperatives, and not on the back of any exploitation of athletes for private profit, but it is played purely for sport’s sake.