In the name of ‘amateurism,’ college athletes make money for everyone except themselves

As millions of people tune in to watch the Final Four, much of their focus will be on the numbers on the scoreboard. But a March 2019 report from U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, calls attention to numbers of a different sort.

The report – titled “Madness, Inc.” – details just how much money other people make off Division I athletes versus how much money is being spent on their college education.

Here are three points from the report that struck me as a researcher who studies the structure and culture of academic life for student-athletes at Division I schools.

College athletes matter to billion-dollar companies

When one of the Nike shoes being worn by Duke’s Zion Williamson blew out just seconds into the highly anticipated game between Duke and the University of North Carolina this spring, it showed the increasingly important role that top men’s basketball players play in generating revenue for corporations – not just the schools for which they play.

Duke’s Zion Williamson sits on the floor following a freak injury that took place when his Nike shoe blew out in a game against North Carolina, on Feb. 20. Gerry Broome/AP
As noted in the “Madness, Inc.” report, more than 4 million people were watching when Williamson’s shoe failed. After depriving that huge audience of their star, it’s not hard to see why Nike’s stock dropped.

Though they are considered student-athletes, the young men who play Division I football basketball are often much more. Quite a few of them are celebrities.

Yet, the NCAA wants to maintain the “amateurism” of college sports. Even though many of these players are nationally recognizable and influential figures, they are prohibited from profiting from their social status. Meanwhile, the people who surround these players, including coaches and athletic directors, make major money off of these players’ performance.

As noted in the report, college sports programs took in US$14 billion in 2018 through ticket sales, television contracts, apparel deals and merchandise sales. Tickets for the game in which Zion’s Nike shoe blew out, sold for $4,000 each, with revenue going back to participating schools. There were also purchases of merchandise by fans online, on campus and at the game. The game aired on ESPN and drew the highest rating of any regular season basketball game ever. The ACC conference championship rematch was the most watched conference championship of all time. For ESPN, this level of interest is more than worth the $1 billion they recently paid ACC schools for exclusive rights to broadcast ACC sports over the next 12 years.

Colleges value coaches’ labor more than their players

Revenue generated from NCAA sports is concentrated among a small number of schools.