Why college athletes should be able to profit from their likeness

By Kyle Block

In the United States millions of fans spend time watching college sports whenever available. Whether watching to support a local team, to support one’s alma mater, or to watch highly skilled competition there is always an audience and money to be made through collegiate sports. While billions of dollars in revenue come from college athletics each year, the NCAA explicitly states in its student athlete rulebook that collegiate athletes cannot “[accept] prize money based on performance… at a competition,” “[be] represented or marketed by a professional sports agent,” or “[endorse] a commercial product or service” in order to retain their eligibility (Jcoleman). Thus, college athletes are unable to profit from the billions of dollars they generate. Though not yet considered professionals, collegiate athletes perform at high levels, showcasing their talents on a national spectacle. Despite the time, work, and effort spent focusing on athletics, college athletes themselves are unable to receive any income for their efforts while the institutions they compete for receive exposure as well as millions of dollars in revenue. Although I believe that student athletes do not need to be paid by their programs for their athletics because of the education student athletes are able to receive, the fact that student athletes cannot market themselves to make money from endorsements, social media, and other platforms while facing financial disparities and potential devastating injuries is unjust and must be changed.

One major problem with the NCAA rule prohibiting student athlete income is the fact that student athletes’ universities and the televisors of collegiate athletic events can generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue while the student athletes make nothing. The most watched collegiate sport is football, reaching a broad audience across America while making money primarily through advertisements. As per the Standard Media Index, ESPN and its “family of networks” generated 792.5 million dollars in advertising revenue from the 2019-2020 college football season alone (Novy-Williams). ESPN televised 282 football games, meaning ESPN generated around 2.81 million dollars per game while the athletes drawing the audience made nothing (Novy-Williams). Why should sports networks like ESPN be able to make millions of dollars from advertisers while the athletes cannot even profit from themselves? Though universities make different amounts of money from their athletic departments, the top athletic universities, especially those in football and basketball, can profit over 100 million dollars annually from their college athletics (Sang). For instance, according to the Detroit Free Press, the University of Michigan made over 190 million dollars in 2019 alone (Sang). Allowing college athletes to sell their own merchandise or take endorsement deals would not take away from the large profit margins for universities and television networks but instead spread collegiate athletes popularity across the United States and draw more attention to the sports. The NCAA policy which allows universities and corporations to profit from student athletes but prohibits student athletes from profiting from their own abilities is hypocritical and warrants a change.

While the universities and networks create excessive revenue, many college athletes struggle to provide for themselves and their families. Sports provide a pathway for many high school athletes from low income backgrounds to receive college educations as the result of sports scholarships. Though college athletes from low income families can receive education opportunities that would otherwise be unobtainable, many college athletes struggle to stay in school without making money from their abilities to support their families. As reported by the National College Players Association in 2011, “85% of on campus athletes and 86% of off-campus athletes below the federal poverty line” (19, Huma). Because NCAA regulations prohibit financial opportunities for student athletes, over four out of every five college athletes live below the poverty line. The fact that the millions of dollars can be made from student athletes while they live in poverty is disgusting. Collegiate athletes must be awarded the opportunity to pursue their own financial opportunities to combat the poor conditions in which many of the athletes live.

Student athletes’ skills, which draw millions of eyes to their competitions, do not come easily; hours upon hours are spent practicing for athletics while at the same time focusing on school and generating no income. College athletes deserve merit in the form of obtaining the right to financial freedom for the amount of work they complete. As reported by Business Insider, college athletes on average work to enhance their athletics for an average of 30 hours per week (Jacobs). For reference, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that the average adult worked for 34.4 hours per week in 2019 (Doyle). College athletes, though technically amateurs, treat their sports as a job, working long hours to perfect their game while also spending time to focus on their academic lives. The amount of work done by college athletes is as time consuming as many professions and therefore college athletes at least deserve the opportunity to profit off their own likeness. 

Even though collegiate athletes have the potential to make money at the professional level after their college careers, only very few end up actually taking their careers to the professional level and face the risks of injury in their sports. College athletes may possess great talent, but due to the large athlete pool competing for a relatively few number of spots at the professional level only few athletes are ever able to make money from their athletic endeavors. According to the NCAA, only 2% of collegiate athletes even play at the professional level (NCAA Recruiting Facts). That means that 98% of college athletes never receive any substantial income from their athletic greatness. The majority of student athletes that are not able to play at the professional level receive scholarships to help them after graduating college but miss out on the marketing opportunities that could have been taken during their college years. 

Part of the reason that college athletes are not able to get to the professional level is because of injuries. Injuries can ruin a student athletes’ athletic career as well as inhibit their life post college. Dante Love was a 22 year old college athlete playing wide receiver at Ball State (Fansided). After a very successful junior season where Love recorded 100 catches and over 1,300 receiving yards, Love decided to play his senior season at Ball State to improve his draft stock (Fansided). Through the first three games of the college football season, Dante Love was the leading receiver in the FBS, the top level of college football (Fansided). Dante’s career ended prematurely during the second quarter of the fourth game of his senior season (Fansided). After a collision with two Indiana defensive players, Dante Love suffered a broken neck, an injury considered “one of the scariest moments of the [college football] season” (Fansided). Soon after, doctors told Love he would never play football again, ruining his chance to make money from his extreme talent. Although the injury was obviously unexpected and tragic, had Dante Love been able to market himself as one of the top receivers in college football, he would have at least made some money from his impressive college career. Dante is one example of the many student athletes who have experienced physical or mental injuries as a result of their sport, causing them to lose out on profiting from their abilities and giving them devastating injuries to deal with past their collegiate careers. 

Whether the result of extreme financial inequality, grueling hours of work, or the risks of devastating injuries, the National Collegiate Athletic Associations’ rules need to change to allow for student athletes to make money from their talent. Although the push towards potential income for college athletes has escalated in recent years, no change has actually happened yet. For the sake of college athletes living in poverty and facing life threatening injuries, we must not wait to make change but must force the conversation for change now.

Works Cited

Doyle, Alison. “What Is the Average Hours Per Week Worked in the US?” The Balance Careers, http://www.thebalancecareers.com/what-is-the-average-hours-per-week-worked-in-the-us-2060631. 

Fansided, and Connor Muldowney/FanSided via Saturday Blitz. “15 College Football Players Whose Careers Ended Too Soon.” FOX Sports, FOX Sports, 4 Mar. 2020, http://www.foxsports.com/stories/college-football/15-college-football-players-whose-careers-ended-too-soon. 

Huma, Ramogi, and Ellen J Staurowsky. “The Price of Poverty in Big Time College Sport.” National College Players Association. 

Jacobs, Peter. “Here’s The Insane Amount Of Time Student-Athletes Spend On Practice.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 27 Jan. 2015, http://www.businessinsider.com/college-student-athletes-spend-40-hours-a-week-practicing-2015-1. 

Jcoleman@ncaa.org. “Amateurism.” NCAA.org – The Official Site of the NCAA, 20 Aug. 2020, http://www.ncaa.org/student-athletes/future/amateurism. 

NCAA Recruiting Facts, National Collegiate Athletic Association, Aug. 2014, http://www.nfhs.org/media/886012/recruiting-fact-sheet-web.pdf. 

Novy-Williams, Eben. “ESPN’s $793 Million in Ad Sales on the Line With College Football.” Sportico.com, Sportico.com, 27 July 2020, http://www.sportico.com/leagues/college-sports/2020/espn-college-football-billion-1234609615/. Sang, Orion. “Why Michigan’s Athletic Department Was Third-Highest Spender in 2018-19.” Detroit Free Press, Detroit Free Press, 16 July 2020, http://www.freep.com/story/sports/college/university-michigan/wolverines/2020/07/16/michigan-athletic-department-finances-2019-fiscal-year/5452338002/.

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