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The Fight for Labor Justice in College Sports Is About More Than Wages

A new California law will allow college athletes the right to profit off of their name and likeness. It’s a welcome step toward compensating such athletes for their labor. But the rot at the heart of the NCAA goes much deeper than wages.

Quarterback Chase Garbers of the California Golden Bears scrambles with the football against safety Vernon Scott of the TCU Horned Frogs at Chase Field on December 26, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

Across the country, critics of NCAA exploitation are celebrating the fact that California governor Gavin Newsom just signed the state’s Fair Pay to Play Act into law, affording athletes at the state’s universities the right to profit off of their names, images, and likenesses beginning in 2023. The Golden State seems to have opened the floodgates, and afraid to be left behind, other states are lining up their own legislative iterations. Indeed, there now appears to be even federal legislation on the docket.

I stand solidly behind the principle that players deserve compensation. But I’m skeptical that this change, even if more broadly implemented across the country, really addresses the rot at the core of NCAA sport. To understand that rot, we need to look beyond compensation questions alone to how the NCAA articulates its mission and another, less remarked upon, recent event: a late Saturday night post-football-game press conference.

In its promotional materials, the NCAA makes it clear that the project of college sports is fundamentally pedagogical: the organization is “dedicated to the well-being and lifelong success of college athletes.” Indeed, it goes so far as to claim that “the association’s belief in student-athletes as students first is a foundational principle.”

On Saturday night, at his postgame press conference following a decisive defeat, Washington State University football coach/educator Mike Leach described the students he is charged with developing as “fat, dumb, happy, and entitled.”

As a faculty member at an NCAA member institution, I can assure you that were I to speak of my students in this way, I would very swiftly be relieved of my responsibilities. Yet when a coach like Leach talks like this in public, we are quick to brush it off as a motivational ploy. His job, after all, is to win football games, right? Tear ’em down to build ’em up and all that. We know this implicitly, even as the NCAA peddles its rhetoric about athlete development.

What we have here, then, is a contradiction at the heart of the NCAA’s mission. The organization is having its cake and eating it, too.

Either NCAA players are student-athletes — in which case all athletic activities should be oriented toward human development (and, believe it or not, degradation and verbal abuse do not qualify as cutting-edge pedagogy) — or they are workers, employed to produce wins and the spectacle of college sports. One might expect workers to earn a paycheck, but not in the NCAA, where compensation takes the form of a “free” education, one that involves public humiliation at the hands of “teachers.” Such is the circular logic of the NCAA.

Here’s where that California legislation supposedly resolves the contradiction. The NCAA can continue to withhold wages by calling its workers students, but then point to the potential for extracurricular compensation to appease critics. For all their resistance to the law, it is the perfect solution to save them from themselves.

Yet there is no amount of cash that can justify the behavior of coaches like Leach or Tom Izzo (regularly found castigating his workers/students on national television). The reality of the NCAA will continue to be the worst of all worlds: players treated as nonworkers and yet subjected to appalling working conditions.

Indeed, the biggest issue of all is that under the auspices of education, NCAA football is systematically sacrificing its participants to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the neurodegenerative disease brought about by repeated head injuries (at a 91 percent clip). Across the sport, almost without exception, players are disciplined to play through pain to the point of exhaustion — or death, as in the tragic case of Jordan McNair just last year.

Leach’s rhetoric is part of the culture that produced that unconscionable outcome. Yet there is no legislation or institutional disciplinary action to address it. Instead, we allow coaches to continue talking about and treating students this way.

That’s why my celebration of the new bill is muted at best. What we need is an overhaul of the system that does not start and end with the question of wages. We need requirements that compel coaches to act like educators. We need universal access to higher education that doesn’t demand a physical sacrifice in return. And, yes, we need students to receive the compensatory fruits of their labor, not a bonus with no salary attached.

But here’s the thing: even a proper wage will not ameliorate the dehumanizing working conditions of NCAA sports. Workers should never be subjected to verbal abuse and physical degradation and danger in the course of their labor, no matter the size of the payoff. A proper wage, then, may be beneficial for campus athletic workers as much for what it represents in redefining the paternalistic, feudal dynamics that govern college sports today as it is for the wage itself. (Name, image, and likeness rights and compensation, let us be crystal clear, are not a wage commensurate to the revenue campus athletic workers generate.)

Workers who recognize themselves as workers — and are acknowledged as such by the powers that be — are better positioned to vie for union rights and protections of their most basic needs: dignity, respect, and safety in the workplace. Just look at the NBA, where it is players who wield the power, in large part because of their collective solidarity and willingness to withdraw their labor when necessary. Mike Leach’s act wouldn’t last a day in the league, and it belongs even less in our schools. Our youthful sporting heroes deserve substantive protections, and these are nowhere to be found in the California legislation or the legion of imitations it has spawned.

When the day comes that we start valuing — and protecting — the labor of our campus athletic workers in all the ways they deserve, I’ll be the one baking the celebratory cake. That day is not today.