Guest op-ed: Big-time college sports aren't amateur — COVID-19 has proved it

A NCAA logo is seen on the wall before a Division III men's basketball championship game. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
A NCAA logo is seen on the wall before a Division III men's basketball championship game. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

(Editor’s note: Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, wrote this op-ed to make the case for athlete compensation and collective bargaining rights.)

In retrospect, it seems quaint to think that the 2020-21 college football and basketball seasons wouldn’t be played. Even as COVID-19 spread like wildfire through college campuses, big-time college sports could not be stopped. Even as games got canceled and postponed left and right, college sports could not be stopped. Even when Big Ten and Pac-12 leaders tried to put the health of their athletes first, college sports could not be stopped. The $15 billion industry, and the millions of dollars in profit made by adults off the free labor of students, had to go on. No matter the cost.

Big-time college football and basketball haven’t been “amateur” for a long time. The product on the field and court is as good as the pros. The profits are comparable. The stadiums and practice facilities, frankly, are often bigger or more extravagant than anything found in the professional leagues. College sports has looked like professional sports for a while. But in 2020, with many schools keeping their non-athlete students at home out of safety concerns while putting athletes at risk, it became clear as day that the only thing separating professional sports from college sports is that one group of predominantly black players gets paid handsomely to risk their health while the other group of predominantly black players gets paid nothing — with all the profits going to almost exclusively white millionaire coaches, athletic directors and sports industry leaders.

If colleges are going to treat their athletes as commodities, then it’s time for the law to catch up.

As we begin a new Congress and a new era of Democratic control in Washington, now is the time to finally address the long-standing inequities that have been endemic in college sports. Doing so will require not just an expansion of economic rights of college athletes, but a wholesale overhaul of the bargaining rights that the NCAA has long denied in the name of “amateurism.”

First, we need to lift restrictions on how college athletes make money off their own name, image and likeness. It’s crazy that Nick Saban can make millions by appearing in non-stop Aflac commercials, but if his star players did the same, they would be banned from college sports. I’ll be introducing legislation that gives college athletes the right to make money off their talent, and I won’t support legislation that puts the NCAA in charge of regulating this right.

Putting the NCAA — the group that has the most to lose from generous college athlete endorsement deals — in charge of these endorsement deals would effectively render the right meaningless. If coaches can have unrestricted endorsement rights, so should students. The world won’t end, like all the adults making money off the kids’ free labor claim.

Second, we need to finally recognize athletes for who they really are: employees. A model that respects college athletes also means ensuring they can receive a fair share of the revenues they generate and finally have the baseline academic and health protections the NCAA has denied them. To get there, college athletes need collective bargaining rights, and this spring I will introduce a second bill that grants athletes these rights. The NCAA has successfully made this fact the third rail of reform. The NCAA says that no matter what, athletes are not and can never be considered employees. But they are employees. They provide a valuable service; they receive compensation in the form of scholarships; and they lose that compensation if they refuse to do the job. What a gift to their employers that this set of highly valuable employees, performing labor that in a free market would earn million dollar salaries, are not allowed to join together to bargain for a share of the profits and safe working conditions.

Despite the NCAA’s claims, sports fans won’t suddenly stop caring about their home state team just because the exploitation of the players ends. I’m a huge college sports fan, and frankly, I will enjoy watching a UConn basketball game more if I know all that the players and their families aren’t going hungry while the coaches pull down multi-million dollar contracts. With Democratic control in the Senate, House and the White House, Congress now has a chance to finally recognize the professionalization of college sports by opening up the endorsement rights of athletes as well as asserting their right to organize. In doing so, we’ll address a civil rights crisis that has existed for far too long. We can’t waste this opportunity.

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