The Problematic Politics of College Sports

The NCAA’s new compensation rule could give female athletes of color a boost — but will it?

A photo of Francesca Belibi dunking on the court.
Francesca Belibi competes in the dunk contest during the 2019 Powerade Jam Fest on March 25, 2019 in Marietta, Georgia. Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

TThe conversation regarding the difference between the millions of dollars that college athletes make for their universities versus their payment (or lack thereof) for those services has been a hot topic for decades. Last year, the college sports industry made a whopping $14 billion and yet the star athletes responsible for a large chunk of that money saw none of it. Some prominent schools make at least $100 million a year from the efforts of their athletic departments and yet the NCAA, which brings in roughly $8 billion annually, has long maintained a policy decreeing that college athletes should remain unpaid amateurs for the “purity of the game.”

That is, until recently.

In a stunning reversal, the NCAA voted at the end of October to side with California governor Gavin Newsome’s new “Fair Pay To Play” bill, which allows college athletes to make money off of their name and or likeness. California’s legislation sparked other states to follow suit, with a handful of them introducing similar legislation. Once the NCAA started to see the writing on the wall, and realized that if they didn’t change their decision there would be a patchwork of laws on the books, it made sense for the board of governors to vote unanimously to change course. That said, it’s unclear when the NCAA rule change will be enforced given that California’s new law won’t take effect until 2023.

The reality is that less than 2% of college athletes actually make it to the pros. So, for many, being able to earn money while they are in school matters a great deal.

There have been similar pieces of federal legislation introduced throughout the years, even a bipartisan measure by Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, but recently Romney issued a warning about the idea of excessive pay when he joined ESPN’s Outside the Line: “I don’t think you can have an athlete at a school making a million dollars a year at that school and lording it over everybody else on the team and everyone else on the campus.” He then went on to state that he believes student-athletes should be able to earn income, with a caveat. “I mean, that left tackle also needs to have some capacity to have some funds to be able to make ends meet and to be able to help their family.’’

Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina doubled down recently, tweeting: “If college athletes are going to make money off their likenesses while in school, their scholarships should be treated like income. I’ll be introducing legislation that subjects scholarships given to athletes who choose to ‘cash in’ to income taxes.”

Think about Francesca Belibi, the 6-foot-1-inch high school dunking phenom who in 2019 headed to Stanford University, could be building her net worth alongside her talents right now.

But Romney at least had one thing right: athletes should be able to help themselves and their family. And the reality is that less than 2% of college athletes actually make it to the pros. So, for many, the opportunity to earn money while they are in school matters a great deal, especially if you happen to be a young woman of color. Why is that? Because across the board, we know that there are still significant pay gaps between men and women, and for Black women and women of color, the difference is even starker. Case in point, accounting for all industries, studies show that Black women make 39% less than White men.

These stats drive home the reasons why this NCAA rule change matters a great deal — especially for young women. What we know to be true is that a majority of women aren’t going into the WNBA or other professional leagues, but as college stars, they could set themselves up for a lucrative future. Think for a moment about the viral UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi, whose floor routine was seen millions of times. She could create a YouTube channel with her upcoming events and source financial sponsorship, as well as an agent. Think about Francesca Belibi, the 6-foot-1-inch Stanford University dunking phenom who could be building her net worth alongside her talents.

Some might point to the ongoing equal pay battles between the men’s and women’s United States soccer teams or the financial successes of Venus and Serena Williams as proof that women can increase their pay and decrease the wage gap. But Williams and the superstars at U.S. Soccer are, unfortunately, outliers in professional women’s sports. They are rich, but they still don’t earn what the men make.

SSo, when we consider the NCAA’s upcoming student-athlete compensation changes, rather than thinking about college athletes “driving around in Ferraris” as Romney lamented, we should think about the much-needed head start in pay that young women athletes of color could be gaining. After all, even if these female athletes are the best of the best, they are moving into a professional industry that starts off by valuing them less than their male counterparts. That’s why the opportunity for young women athletes of color to be paid while playing for college and earning a degree could go a long way to helping them close an ever-widening equity gap.

Some pundits say that the new ruling won’t have as much of an impact as anyone hopes or wishes for, that perhaps it’s all talk and no action. The bottom line is this: Everyone should be paid equally for the work they do and that includes college athletes who are making hundreds of millions for their universities, and women and women of color athletes who, much like in every industry, are putting in 100% of the work for 39% less pay. It’s time for a change to come and the NCAA is finally taking baby steps in the right direction.

is the host of #WokeAF & #PMMood & co-host of the podcast #democracyish. She covers all the news and happenings at the intersection of politics and pop culture.

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