Rejoice! Student-athletes are finally allowed to eat vegetables as snacks. Which, I’m sure, is the news they’ve all been waiting to hear.
Shockingly, until 2014 the NCAA rules regarding nutrition banned schools from providing snacks other than bagels, nuts, fruit and peanut butter. That rule was changed a year ago, shortly after NBA point guard Shabazz Napier claimed he was often forced to go to bed hungry while working as a student-athlete at the University of Connecticut.
It’s possible that these “snack rules” were creative with pure intentions, or possibly to prevent schools from signing contracts with energy bar companies. Whatever the origin, the results drastically limited athletes’ dietary options; but today, one year after the NCAA changed these rules, schools like Washington State University can finally feed their athletes balanced meals.
This restructuring of NCAA regulations is part of a massive PR campaign to battle against the perception that many schools are exploiting the students that perform in their athletic programs. Of course, when students went to court in 2014 as part of the O’Bannon v. NCAA class action lawsuit, they were most likely hoping to achieve far more than they just the ability to eat vegetables after practice.
Many arguments have been made for recognizing student athletes as employees of the schools they represent. In the words of Dave Zirin of The Nation, it’s somewhat disturbing that we’ve created a system where “young black men are basically taxed at 100 percent to pay for the salaries of largely middle-class, middle-aged white men”. That, in and of itself, is a massive PR problem for those who hope to maintain the status-quo for student-athletes. Most of the issues at play go a lot deeper than just having the appearance of impropriety.
According to Rep. Jim Moran, only 20 colleges in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) make a profit from their sports programs. When Politifact investigated that claim they found that, of the 123 schools that examined, 103 of them operated with an average deficit of about $14.9 million per year, almost twice the amount the was profited by the 20 schools operating in the black.
While twenty school in the FBS are net-positive, all schools outside of the FBS operate the programs at a loss. Division II and Division III schools already spend more than they make on their sports programs and Division I is not far behind. In 2014, the NCAA reported that program expansion costs outpaced revenue growth in Division I.
Of course, critics may claim that these numbers are manufactured by administrator inflating budgets to justify the revenue increases. For example, while competitive salaries are required for a level playing field, it’s hard to understand how a school like the University of Alabama can justify paying one employee $7 million a year if all he’s doing is coaching a group of students.
Not only are coaches paid at a high-level, student-athletes likenesses are used to sell video games and promote the schools in the media. That’s not part of the “normal student” package.
In fact, a US judge saw it that way as well. In 2014, Judge Claudia Wilken of the United States District Court in Oakland, California, stated that “The high coaches’ salaries and rapidly increasing spending on training facilities at many schools suggest that these schools would, in fact, be able to afford to offer their student-athletes a limited share of the licensing revenue generated from their use of the student-athletes’ own names, images, and likenesses.”
The NCAA’s appeals have not been successful; as a result, many student-athletes will receive a small monetary settlement for the use of their likenesses in video games. While some view this ruling as a success, others see it as a fundamental change that could mark the end of the student-athlete as we know it.
These schools clearly rely on their athletic programs for recruiting purposes, and proponents would argue it’s not such a raw deal when you examine the numbers. Athletics scholarships accounted for roughly 50% of all financial assistance offered at NCAA schools, and the organization boasts of higher graduation rates among student athletes.
The rough part comes with the other side of the equation. In exchange for their participation in the programs, these athletes are expected to maintain high standards of excellence while practicing at a minimum of 30 hours a week and time commitments that often exceed those of many full-time workers. While the schools make money, the students rewards are less tangible. Knowing that, it’s easy to see why some of those students may feel exploited.
Before the O’Bannon ruling was handed down, the NCAA announced that they had decided to abandon their contract with EA Sports. As a result, students images will no longer be used in video games; but schools will continue to make money off their endorsement deals with Nike, Adidas and Reebok. Revenue streams from ticket sales, concessions, and merchandising will continue to bring in the bucks and student-athletes will not see any of the profits.
So far, the National Labor Relations Board has still rejected student athletes attempted to unionize, but that may well change as prevailing attitudes shift and the impact of Wilken’s verdict become more visible.
Who knows what tomorrow holds, but for now, we can all smile knowing that it’s finally acceptable to feed your football team a salad when they’re hungry.