NCAA Rules Trap Many College Athletes in Poverty

Football poverty
Football poverty

College football and basketball players are getting played instead of getting paid: Though they bring in the big bucks for their institutions of higher learning, many star athletes are living below the poverty line, according to a new study, The Price of Poverty in Big Time College Sport.

The study, conducted by the National College Players Association and Drexel University's department of sport management, looked at football and basketball teams from Football Bowl Subdivision colleges and calculated athletes' out-of-pocket education-related expenses (over and above their "full" scholarships), and compared the room-and-board portion of players' scholarships to the federal poverty line -- as well as to coaches' and athletic administrators' salaries. It then used NFL and NBA collecting bargaining agreements to estimate the fair market value of FBS football and basketball players.

The results were none too favorable for athletes: The average scholarship shortfall -- the student's out-of-pocket expenses -- for each "full scholarship" athlete was approximately $3,222 per player during the 2010-11 school year. The report also found that the room-and-board provisions in a full scholarship leave 85% of players living on campus and 86% of players living off campus living below the federal poverty line. And the estimated "fair market value" of those FBS football and basketball players to their institutions? $120,048 and $265,027, respectively.

Poverty in sports
Poverty in sports

"We all know that big time football and basketball players receive much less than they are worth, but the disparity between players' fair market value, what they receive, and the money that others receive is shocking," said NCPA President Ramogi Huma, who co-authored the study, in a prepared statement.

"I was most surprised by the fair market value calculations for FBS football and basketball players," Huma told DailyFinance. "I had seen estimates from the late '90s that were around $50,000 or so. But $120,000 and $265,000? The numbers jumped out immediately."

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And those are just averages: Some examples point to even more striking disparities. The University of Texas football players' fair market value was $513,922 in 2010, but they lived $778 below the federal poverty line and had a $3,624 scholarship shortfall. Duke basketball players were valued at $1,025,656 while living just $732 above the poverty line and had scholarship shortfalls of $1,995. The University of Florida had the highest combined football and basketball revenues while its players' scholarships left them living $2,250 below the federal poverty line and a $3,190 scholarship shortfall. The score: Players, zero; Schools, coaches and just about everybody else involved, millions.

The 60 highest-paid FBS football coaches averaged more than $2 million in total compensation, according to the report, with big guns like Alabama's Nick Saban and Texas' Mack Brown earning an estimated $6 million and $5.1 million, respectively. The 25 highest-paid basketball coaches in the 2011 NCAA tournament averaged about $2.4 million, with Rick Pitino of Louisville taking home a compensation package of $7.5 million.

Based on the findings in the study and an Inside Higher Education report showing that almost half of FBS colleges were caught violating NCAA rules between 2001 and 2010, the report implicates the NCAA itself as the chief culprit for the scandals that have plagued college sports.

"Through the NCAA, college presidents mandate impoverished conditions for young, valuable players and throw money around to all other college sports stakeholders when those players perform well, a formula that drives the powerful black market that thrives at so many universities nationwide," the report concludes.

It also points out that, despite athletic programs' record revenues, salaries and capital expenditures -- as well as prohibitions on countless sources of income for athletes -- the NCAA explicitly allows college athletes to accept food stamps and welfare benefits. "The NCAA is forcing taxpayers to pay for expenses that players would be able to pay themselves if not for NCAA rules. I guess the NCAA expects both college athletes and taxpayers to finance its greed and lavish salaries," Huma stated.

The ramifications are huge for athletes. "If nothing changes, about half of football and basketball players will continue to not graduate and will continue to break NCAA rules. If reform takes place, graduation rates will increase dramatically, their financial desperation will be reduced, and they will finally receive their commercial free market value," predicted Huma.

"We have practical recommendations for a new amateur model that would increase graduation rates, minimize violations, and decrease the immoral financial disparity between the amount of money invested in athletes' education and the lavish salaries paid to coaches and athletic administrators," he said. " With the college presidents admitting failure and a lack of power, only the federal government has the ability to bring forth reform."

The NCPA report recommends that the Justice Department and Congress enact comprehensive reform through NCAA deregulation and more educational support for college athletes. Among the report's suggestions:

1. Alleviate some of the athletes' financial desperation by using new TV revenues to provide athletic scholarships that fully cover each school's cost of attendance.

2. Adopt the Olympic amateur model by lifting restrictions on college athletes' commercial opportunities such as endorsements and autograph signings. A portion of the funds could be placed in an educational lockbox (described below) to help increase graduation rates and decrease NCAA violations.

3. Allow revenue-producing athletes to receive a portion of new revenues that can be placed in an educational lockbox, a trust fund to be accessed to assist in or upon the completion of their college degree. Players who violate NCAA rules could lose some or all of their portion from this fund.

Drexel University professor Ellen Staurowsky, the study's other co-author, sums it up: "Our findings continue to unmask the pretense that big-time college sport is about 'kids' playing 'games.' Big-time college sport is about big business. The mythology of the 'student-athlete' as promoted by the NCAA is revealed to cover up a system of inequities in compensation and treatment for the athletes who make the most sacrifices and contribute the most to the enterprise."