Larry Smith

The idea for the NCAA was germinated by President Theodore Roosevelt, who convened several colleges and universities at the White House due to the high number of injuries — and deaths — that had occurred in college football. Initially chartered in 1906 as the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS), the organization became the National Collegiate Athletic Association in 1910. Today, the NCAA oversees sports programs for nearly half a million athletes in the U.S. and Canada. That includes 24 men’s and women’s sports across approximately 1,100 member schools.

As with the NFL, the NCAA is basically a license to print money. (Incidentally, the NFL was, legally, a nonprofit organization until 2015.) During fiscal year 2016-2017, the NCAA boasted revenues of $1.06 billion, which does not include $130 million in ticket sales and $60 million in marketing rights. (The Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament generates more than $800 million annually by itself.) That same year, the NCAA had expenses of $956 million. Most of that spending ($560 million) went to member schools. Another $200 million went to a one-time payment to fund additional programs. Not surprisingly, the NCAA is fully aware of how such staggering figures make it look to “outsiders.” Thus, the organization emphasizes that the overwhelming majority of those dollars are “pass through.” In turn, the member schools realize the fact that they receive the bulk of the revenues ensures that they also are under the proverbial microscope. This is why they rarely fail to use the term “student-athletes” in reference to their revenue-generating engines.

Despite the gargantuan amount of dollars that the organization generates, the NCAA touts itself an organization that promotes “amateurism.” Indeed, some of its defenders have cited the Olympics as a model. However, the fact is that even ancient Olympians were compensated (legally and illicitly) for their athletic prowess. The ancient Greeks did not even have a word for “amateur”! Further, their word for “athlete” literally meant “competitor for a prize” — which frequently was monetary (often including tax-free status). Today, the University of Alabama runs an “amateur” football program — with its head coach earning nearly $9 million per year in salary alone. (Several assistant coaches in major college sports programs earn more than $1 million annually!) 

All this leads me to applaud the California legislature for unanimously passing the “Fair Pay to Play Act.” If signed into law, college athletes in that state will be allowed (beginning in 2023) to profit from their image or likeness, as well as from endorsements. This would be a figurative and literal game changer. The issue of compensating college athletes, which I favor, has been hotly debated for decades. (I am familiar with every counter-argument; none of them persuades me.) Yes, many Division I athletes receive generous scholarships. But one can’t cash a scholarship at the bank or use it to buy clothes.

Most economists agree that the current system excessively benefits schools, coaches, TV networks, sports apparel companies and the NCAA — at the figurative and literal expense of the athletes. Everyone in this “supply chain” prospers monetarily — except the ones who actually produce the labor. One succinct definition of socialism is a system in which one does not equitably benefit from one’s labor. The current NCAA system is socialism. 

To add insult to injury, NCAA rules often are capricious; some of them would make Draco himself proud. For example, it used to be the case that athletes could eat college-provided bagels at sporting events — as long as said bagels did not have cream cheese. (No, that’s not a joke. That rule was changed in 2013.) Similarly, the University of Oklahoma once self-reported an “excessive pasta violation.” Further, the NCAA long punished athletes for taking steps to ascertain the level at which they might be drafted into the NFL or NBA. (This points to the fact that we’re really only talking about football and basketball.) 

Then there is the nagging issue of race. The NCAA and several of its member schools have an egregious history vis-à-vis their treatment of Black athletes — the very ones who would disproportionately benefit from the ability to be compensated. For example, the NCAA once banned dunking in basketball because it was seen as an advantage for Black athletes. Further, storied athletic programs like the University of Kentucky’s basketball team and the University of Alabama’s football team explicitly excluded Black athletes — until they were crushed by HBCUs and Black-dominated teams from predominately white schools. Even today, most major college basketball and football teams are dominated by Black athletes, even though the schools’ overall enrollment of Black students tends to be low. 

In the end, this is an issue of fundamental fairness and economic justice. It is unacceptable that a 16-year-old can earn $3 million dollars for winning a video game tournament, but young men who generate billions of dollars are limited to a “free” college education (as long as they perform well enough in sports). Oh, and a few cheeseburgers at the White House if they win a national championship.  

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at

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