The advent of cable television offered universities vast new opportunities to profit from football and basketball, and the large and most lucrative programs have consolidated into five major conferences. Those dominate the Bowl Championship Series in football and the NCAA tournament in basketball and earn huge sums.
Northwestern football earned an $8 million profit from $30 million in revenue during the 2012-13 season and is hardly a perennial powerhouse like Notre Dame or the University of Alabama.
Universities monopolize the market for athletes’ services through the NCAA, which mandates players are amateurs and cannot be paid salaries. This denies athletes fair compensation for the value their labor and unique talents create through ticket sales, concessions and TV rights.
Coaches earn millions, universities divert profits to subsidize other activities, and fans get cheap entertainment. Universities twist admissions standards and faculty bend grades to deliver winners and appease wealthy donors.
Winning teams help universities raise funds but most money stays in athletic departments. And I know from hard experience running a major academic program, money raised by sports teams preempts sources of support for educational activities.
In exchange for scholarships for tuition, room and board, and limited expenses, student athletes are expected to train year round and work 40 to 60 hours a week during training camp and the regular season. Their lives are very tightly controlled—when they study, social media activities and the like—often this impairs their development into fully functioning adults.
Star athletes like Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, who delivered two national championships, are simply worth millions more than the scholarships and are flat out exploited.
Most athletes, unlike McCarron, will not enjoy a professional career, but instead leave college after five years with a degree in a soft major that has little value in today’s tough jobs market or no diploma at all. Many leave with medical conditions from overtraining and injuries but no financial assistance to pay for a lifetime of care.
Recently, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Northwestern University football are employees and can vote to form a union. The football players are not necessarily seeking salaries as much as better opportunities to complete degrees and get additional health insurance.