For Players, College Football Is Basically a Feudal System

As the GOP demands college football teams start the season, new research shows that coaches are getting very rich off a system that prohibits athletes from joining a union and being paid for their work.

Division 1 athletes from Austin Peay and Central Arkansas universities during the kickoff football game on August 29, 2020 in Montgomery, Alabama. Butch Dill / Getty

Donald Trump and his party’s leaders have been simultaneously pushing to shield higher education officials from COVID-related lawsuits while demanding that schools ignore health warnings and launch the college football season. In calling for a resumption of collegiate sports, Republican lawmakers have depicted themselves as defending the interests of players because, in their words, “these young men need a season.”

New research, however, suggests that it is not the unpaid players who most “need” a season. Instead, those with a real financial stake in reopening are the coaches and university officials who are together making huge sums of money off players who are barred from being paid and joining a union to collectively bargain for compensation. Those prohibitions continue, thanks to the same lawmakers now demanding the unpaid players risk their lives by returning to the football field to generate the revenues that finance coaches’ multimillion-dollar pay packages.

A new study from researchers at Northwestern University, University of Chicago, and University of Michigan found that if Congress permitted Division I college football and basketball players to form a union and collectively bargain for the same revenue share as professional athletes, on average, each college “football player would receive $360,000 per year and each basketball player would earn nearly $500,000 per year.”

That amount, the researchers note, “is significantly higher than the current average value of full scholarships these athletes are currently receiving.” Indeed, they find that less than 7 percent of football and basketball revenues go to pay scholarships and living expenses — far less than the revenue share professional athletes get. Of course, in most professional sports leagues, players are represented by unions that collectively bargain with owners.

If you think college athletes revenue-generating activities aren’t “work,” read the findings of the 2014 National Labor Relations Board.

“Players spend 50 to 60 hours per week on their football duties during a one-month training camp prior to the start of the academic year and an additional 40 to 50 hours per week on those duties during the three or four month football season,” the agency wrote. “Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies. In fact, the players do not attend academic classes while in training camp or the first few weeks of the regular season.”

No Pay for Players; Multimillion-Dollar Pay Packages for Coaches

So what happens to the nearly $5 billion of revenue that unpaid college football and basketball players are generating every year? With Congress refusing to pass new laws protecting college athletes’ rights as workers, an ever-larger share of that cash haul is being funneled into huge salaries for college coaches, university officials, and athletic facilities.

The Northwestern study notes that, as unpaid players have generated bigger and bigger revenues, “coaching salaries have grown substantially along with athletic department budgets.”

“Average salaries of Power 5 football coaching staffs at public schools grew from $4.8 to $9.8 million from 2008 to 2018,” the researchers found. “There have been corresponding increases in spending on non-coaching administrative salaries as well. From 2008 to 2018 these increased from $12.1 to $22.3 million.”

Alabama Republican Senate nominee Tommy Tuberville embodies one iconic example of public universities enriching coaches with revenues generated by unpaid players. Auburn University gave him a $5 million severance payout even though he quit his job. He then received a $2-million-a-year pay package from Texas Tech University, which raised his salary while slashing compensation for educators. He then went on to receive a $2.2 million salary from the University of Cincinnati, whose officials said, “It’s a market rate.”

Revenues from players’ unpaid labor has also been used to increase spending on athletic facilities. The Washington Post reported that in 2014, forty-eight schools in the wealthiest sports conferences “spent $772 million combined on athletic facilities, an 89-percent increase from $408 million spent in 2004.”

The researchers also found that as the revenues generated by unpaid football and basketball players are distributed to other sports programs, “the existing limits on player compensation effectively transfers resources away from students who are more likely to be black and more likely to come from poor neighborhoods towards students who are more likely to be white and come from higher-income neighborhoods.”

Players Demand Rights, Congress Stalls as NCAA Spends on Lobbying

As GOP lawmakers demand a resumption of college sports, players have asked for new legislation that would let them be paid for their work and the right to form a union. But bills have yet to move forward, as the NCAA and its allies have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a lobbying campaign in Washington.

With legislation stalled, players have tried to take matters into their own hands. Last year, a Villanova University player filed a class action lawsuit arguing that in refusing to pay athletes, universities are violating minimum-wage laws.

Prior to that, the National Labor Relations Board in 2015 overturned a ruling by one of its regional directors and refused to recognize Northwestern University players as employees entitled to the right to collectively bargain.

Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court in 2016 refused to hear a case to resolve allegations that the NCAA is illegally refusing to compensate players for the lucrative commercial use of their names, images, and likenesses.