The hypocrisy inherent in college athletics has been apparent for many years.
Young adults risk their health and well-being, with little chance of becoming professional athletes. A huge group of stakeholders rake in cash along the way — colleges, broadcasters, merchandisers, advertisers — but the people doing the actual work get no cash compensation.
Even worse than the lack of a paycheck, students are forbidden from seeking profits from outside organizations and businesses, even as their names, faces and jersey numbers are promoted to enrich the university.
Until recently, the strict amateur status of college athletes has not been up for serious debate. There are promising signs that attitude is starting to change, and a new California law — allowing college athletes to seek licensing or endorsement deals — is accelerating the debate.
University of Iowa basketball star Jordan Bohannon, a Linn-Mar alumnus, brought national attention to the issue this year when he posted a ransom note on Twitter, complete with a photo of a stolen March Madness rug: “Give us the ability to make money off our own name and we’ll give you your rug back.”
Bohannon eventually backed down, apparently at the advice of his university overseers. During this offseason, he underwent hip surgery that may keep him off the court next year. While he’s expected to make a full recovery, it’s a jarring reminder of the risks young athletes expose their bodies to.
The refusal to pay college athletes leads to unintended consequences. It’s common to hear stories of athletes getting cash under the table from supporters — a nice gesture, but an unfair and unaccountable system. Iowa’s legalization of sports betting makes it even more important to ensure athletes aren’t getting backdoor payments.
It’s important to recognize the racial and social justice impacts of the current arrangement. In many cases, an athletics scholarship is the best or only opportunity for athletes from low-income families to access higher education. Also, competitors in the sports posting the most revenue are more likely to be people of color than their college classmates, performing for mostly white fans.
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The fact that athletes often enjoy scholarships and a few other benefits does not negate the gross disparity in the distribution of the revenue. It is misguided to suppose high school juniors and seniors can make well-informed decisions about the trade-offs of exchanging their physical labor for tuition payments before they commit to do so.
Next year, Iowa lawmakers are expected to introduce a bill allowing college athletes to be compensated. If more states join California — where the new law takes effect in 2023 — the NCAA will be forced to reconsider its overbearing restrictions.
Iowa loves the Hawkeyes, the Cyclones and the Panthers. It’s time to put our money where our giant foam fingers are.
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