Shoe malfunction puts U.S. College sports under microscope

The untenable college system promotes the amateur myth and tries to suppress the fact that young athletes fill the seats

A few weeks back, Duke University’s star basketball player, Zion Williamson, blew out his Nike sneaker – and sprained his knee in the process – in a game against his school’s arch rival, the University of North Carolina.

At the time, there were fears that Williamson had suffered a serious injury, one that might negatively impact his National Basketball Association future and livelihood.

Fortunately, Williamson recovered and is now starring in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament.

Nevertheless, the high-profile shoe malfunction stirred the debate again regarding what’s fair compensation for American college athletes who bring in millions of dollars to their schools.

Should Williamson be happy with his college scholarship? Or should he be compensated closer to his market worth?

Why don’t we just finally accept that big-time college sports are a reality in the United States?

College sports, at the highest level, are a huge entertainment industry. One only needs to watch the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, or read about the latest billion-dollar media rights deal for a college athletic conference, to realize that we’re not simply talking about extracurricular sporting activities for students.

As such, any serious college sports reform effort must address the prevailing economic injustice.

The hypocrisy in college athletics is the result of an untenable system that promotes the amateur myth and tries to suppress the fact that the young athletes who fill the seats at football stadiums and basketball arenas on U.S. college campuses have significant market value.

“The plight of college athletes is definitely a civil rights issue,” says civil rights historian and author Taylor Branch. “The governance of college sports is a civil rights issue because the athletes are citizens and are being denied their rights by what amounts to collusion. Colleges are telling football and basketball players they can’t get anything above a college scholarship. The athletes are being conned out of their rights. We need modern abolitionists to fight this unjust and unstable system.”

Some folks are trying to do just that.

Nancy Skinner, Democrat majority whip of the California state senate, has introduced Bill 206, also known as the Fair Pay to Play Act, in the California state legislature. Under the bill, college athletes would be allowed to receive compensation in a way that’s similar to what Olympic athletes can receive. College athletes would be allowed to benefit from use of their names, images and likenesses, like every other student at colleges and universities (and basically, every other American). In essence, they would be allowed to ink corporate sponsorship and endorsement deals.

“The Williamson case highlights just how unfair the system is,” said Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association (NCPA). “Players are forced into a system in which they play for essentially no compensation, but they risk injury that could seriously impact their future.”

It doesn’t have to be this way.

“Is it so ignoble for a college athlete to make money off his her talent and fame?” asks sports and culture writer Patrick Hruby. “Nobody in America has to deal with the restrictions on income that the NCAA imposes. Actors and musicians can go off to college, be on scholarship and still make money off their talent. It’s morally wrong, and un-American, to prevent athletes from doing the same.”

Most of the focus of the debate on whether college athletes should be paid has centred around big-time college football and basketball players. But elite athletes in the ‘minor’ sports can be impacted, too.

Four-time Olympic gold medal winner Missy Franklin chose to swim for the University of California, Berkeley swim team instead of turning pro after her Olympic heroics. While at school, she suffered back problems and never regained her top form. Because she was banned from taking a corporate sponsorship deal while at university, she lost a lot of money that sponsors were willing to pay her at her peak.

Recently, in a mixed ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken determined that amateurism rules barring payment beyond scholarships and basic costs of education violate antitrust law. However, elsewhere in her ruling, she wrote that while NCAA athletes should be allowed to receive more compensation, it should be limited to benefits “related to education,” e.g., post-graduate scholarships, tutoring, study abroad, etc.

Admittedly, developing a system in which athletes are put on a university’s payroll (and all that would likely entail, e.g., workers’ compensation, player unions, Title IX ramifications, etc.) would be a complex endeavour. But allowing athletes to be paid by a sponsor to appear in an ad campaign or simply to be paid to sign autographs at a local auto dealer for a couple hours is pretty straightforward.

Why does this whole issue have to be so complicated?

The Olympic model is the quickest and easiest way to more fairly compensate college athletes. It’s not the complete solution but it’s a great start.

The Olympics dumped the amateur myth and allowed athletes to make money from their athletic ability and fame. And the world didn’t end! In fact, the Olympics are more popular than ever.

The NCAA’s antiquated amateurism model is dying, but it’s a very slow death. Adopting the Olympic model would allow the college sports system to spin more quickly toward economic justice.

Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (, a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.

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