“As far as paying players, professionalizing college athletics, that’s where you lose me. I’ll go do something else, because there is enough entitlement in this world as it is.”
These words come from renowned college football coach Dabo Swinney. Swinney is the head coach of Clemson University’s football team, and during his tenure he led the team to two national championship victories. But Swinney’s comments have nothing to do with winning or losing football games. They’re about a much more contentious and growing debate in the college sports world: Should college athletes be paid?
Swinney’s stance is abundantly clear. And he’s right. There is too much entitlement in our world.
But the players aren’t the problem; people like Swinney are. His annual $9.3 million salary coats his comments in sheer irony.
How dare these college athletes, who rake in billions of dollars for their colleges and universities and watch their coaches (who never put their physical health at risk for their job) make millions a year, suggest they should get their slice of the pie?
The better questions are: why is Dabo Swinney entitled to free labor to fuel his multimillion dollar salary? How is what he does—standing on the sidelines and screaming obscenities at players— more worthy of compensation than student athletes putting their bodies on the line to win a game Swinney will get credit for? Don’t throw stones from your glass house, Dabo.
If big Division 1 schools want to be treated like they are institutions whose top priority is education, that is fine by me, but their actions have to back it up. If you claim to be a school first and foremost, then why is your football coach paid more than any other employee (including the school president)? Why does your budget depend so heavily on football and basketball that you need to cut other sports once you lose one season (of football and basketball) to a pandemic? If education is what you stand for, then why do you rake in millions off of students who usually don’t end up with a degree?
Yes, technically all these athletes are given a scholarship, but an often overlooked point in this debate is that most schools only offer scholarships on a yearly basis. A scholarship your sophomore year doesn’t entitle you to one your junior year. The college (more specifically the coach) decides scholarship renewals. So what happens if you get injured? The rules vary by school, but many places can decide not to renew your scholarship due to an off-field injury. Broke your leg in a car accident? You can kiss that degree goodbye. Other things completely out of an athlete’s control, like a coaching change, can also lead to the loss of a scholarship. If the team hires a new coach and they decide they don’t want you on the team, then they don’t have to renew your scholarship the next year. The same applies if you aren’t performing as expected and get cut; cutting players who are injured (even on-field) could also mean the loss of a scholarship. The rules supposedly in place to prevent this from happening can be utilized upon appeal, but that could take months or even years to come to fruition.
What about the starry-eyed student-athlete who lets their pro-basketball dreams blind them from the harsh reality that they might not make it pro? How is it acceptable for a college to turn away one of their students if they declare for the draft and it doesn’t work out? 19 year olds don’t get a second chance if they make a risky career decision. We need to stop pretending that everyone who plays college basketball or football gets a guaranteed education (or for that matter, a trip to the pros). They don’t.
Colleges use the free labor of 18-22 year-olds to make billions of dollars, and they neither compensate that workforce nor guarantee them a secure path to a degree. College athletes at Division 1 schools don’t have anyone protecting their interests. They aren’t allowed to unionize, and although the NCAA claims to protect student-athletes’ interests, these young adults have next to no say in the organizations’ policies. Doesn’t it seem predatory for schools to make billions of dollars off student athletes, many of whom are teenagers, all while denying them compensation, educational security and a voice in the policies governing them? What adults are looking out for the financial interests of 18 year-olds living on their own for the first time?
The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbates all of these problems. Even though many schools have deemed it unsafe to return for in-person classes, their football and basketball seasons go on unfettered. At the height of the pandemic in December and January, when the United States saw record cases and many universities sent their students home for remote learning after Thanksgiving, NCAA basketball (a full-contact indoor sport!) played on.
One of the most appalling examples is Duke basketball. On Dec. 25, Duke announced the cancellation of its remaining women’s basketball season due to COVID-19 safety concerns. Surely the men’s team playing the same sport at the same university had their season cancelled too, right? Wrong. As I am writing this, the Duke men’s basketball team is still chugging along. Do college-aged males have some genetic difference from their female counterparts that lowers their risk for infection? No. So if it isn’t safe for the women’s team to play, then why is it safe for the men’s team? The answer is that it’s not, but the NCAA and its big time basketball schools can’t bear to lose all the money that will come from having a men’s basketball season. The health of these athletes is the sacrificial lamb for collegiate sports’ pockets, and students don’t have a say in the matter. If it is too dangerous to force professors into classrooms, then why force unpaid students to face similar risk?
And before you argue that “they don’t have to play if they don’t want to” or “they aren’t at risk because they are young and healthy” let me stop you. It is true that no one is holding a gun to these athletes’ heads and forcing them to compete, but you can’t discount the pressure they face to serve prestigious sports programs like Duke’s. Pressure from teammates and coaches to return, the fear of losing a scholarship (which we’ve established is a real possibility) or one’s standing on a team and, worst of all, the lack of knowledge of what the risks actually are make this an unfair decision to place in the hands of young people with little to no one looking out for their interests. And while it is indeed believed that COVID-19 is unlikely to have devastating effects on young and healthy athletes, there is certainly evidence that it can.
Now more than ever it is clear that colleges and the NCAA have been getting away with exploiting the workforce that makes them billions. And they aren’t going to start looking out for the athletes out of the goodness of their hearts; they will only look out for them if we pressure them to do so. After all, the pandemic has revealed that nothing is more important to the NCAA than its bottom line.