College Athletes Seizing Power

Photo credit: Screenshot. College football players are beginning to realize how much leverage they have.

While we await the definitive word on if there will be any college football played this fall - and the smart money would still say no - one thing has become abundantly clear: The real winners in all of this are the players.

Not today, mind you. But long term. Because now it’s become readily apparent that colleges, college towns and elected officials need college football. Witness Vice President and sycophantic lap dog Mike Pence, who tweeted Tuesday that “America needs college football,” while his Bloviator-in-Chief boss has taken to any airway to insist that the sport be played this fall.

Never mind that the God-awful job Donald Trump and Pence have done handling the COVID-19 pandemic is the single biggest reason why there won’t be football this fall, and never mind that they didn’t utter a word when small, non-revenue producing programs were cancelling their seasons.

Now that the money programs in the Pac-12 and Big Ten are shutting down - and the SEC, ACC and Big 12 are on the brink of doing so - and taking the economies of a lot of red-state college towns with them, suddenly college football has become something America “needs.” And when you have something someone needs, or in this case, apparently a country needs, you have the most important thing possible in a negotiation: leverage.

The power dynamic has shifted. What Pence and Trump have unwittingly done is given leverage to a largely Black, largely liberal workforce that wants to organize to get a bigger slice of the pie that their blood, sweat and talent earn. It doesn’t appear Pence and Trump thought this recent stance out very thoroughly, as is their custom. 

Even before this week, the players had become more unified and vocal than ever in demanding a share of the money that is created in Big Time College Football.

Using the momentum from the increased emphasis on social justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and with a focus on their safety because of COVID-19, college football players in the Pac-12 came together last weekend and demanded, among other things, increased safety protocols related to the coronavirus, a greater commitment by member schools to social-justice issues, increased athlete rights pertaining to eligibility and transferring issues and, most notably, 50 percent of each sport’s conference revenue to be divided among that sports’ players.

It wasn’t just that they asked for the money. There was the threat of a boycott. And that’s where the leverage comes in. It’s a lot easier to keep your side unified when you have the upper hand, and these are bright young men who have seen the money they generate. And they’ve seen just how important their product is to the economies of their communities.

And we’re talking a lot of money. (Cue Dr. Evil here.) Combined, the Power 5 conferences generated over $2.9 billion in 2019.

Meanwhile, Louisiana State University economics professor Loren Scott estimated fans visiting Baton Rouge for football games in 2013 spent $65.7 million in the area. Six Oklahoma home games are worth an estimated $21 million to Norman, Okla. Other college towns report similar impacts.

Clearly, that means there are losers here beyond the players and coaches. Bartenders, hoteliers, stores that sell beer and/or school merchandise are all going to take a hit with no college football games. And that’s why so many political types are so adamant that the sport be played. As a wise man once said, it’s the economy, stupid.

Because the NCAA has long hid behind the sham of amateurism, or how it has chosen to define it, the players don’t see any of that money. And, it costs them. Bigly, to coin a phrase.

A recent study co-authored by Drexel University sports management professor Ellen J. Staurowsky concluded that by not getting a fair shake of the revenue, college football players at just the Power Five schools are being bilked out of billions of dollars a year in fair market value.

Staurowsky’s study is based on the premise that college football players, if they were treated as the professionals they are, would get between 47 and 50 percent of all conference revenue, a similar split to what the NFL and NBA players hammered out in their collective bargaining agreements.

Under that formula, the average market value for a player at a Power Five school would be $337,755 per year and $1.35 million if he played all four years. Now multiply that times an average football roster and then multiply that by the 65 Power Five programs, and you get a whole lot of money the players aren’t getting.

Fair market value for big-time college basketball players is even higher, the study found.

“The NCAA and its schools have put out this false notion that the money isn’t there, that paying the players would cost them too much,” Staurowsky told The Intersection. “But when you look at the pro level, where they don’t have these rules with this false notion of amateurism, the revenue stream basically goes to these areas: franchise owners, facilities, infrastructure, player development and then the rest goes to the athletes. “In college sports, the NCAA system blocks revenue from going to players. So you can see the revenue goes more to coach salaries, to administrator salaries and to extravagant facilities, because those other avenues the money would go to, the players, is blocked off. They’ve created a system that benefits everyone but the players. And they want to keep it.” And that’s why the Pac-12 players insisted on compensation among their list of demands. And, it’s interesting to note that when the Pac-12 announced Tuesday that they’d be cancelling fall sports, much ado was paid to the COVID virus. Left unsaid was that even if they had chosen to play through the pandemic, they still may not have had any games if the players followed through with their boycott threat. The NCAA has long clutched its pearls when it comes to compensating players, claiming making them professionals would ruin the appeal of the product and the market for college sports. It’s always been self-serving hooey, and that’s more apparent now than ever. Because ask those aforementioned business owners in college towns if they’d rather have game-days with college players getting paid or have the empty bars and restaurants and hotels they’ll have without any games this fall. When the option is paying the players and having games or not paying them and having none, paying the players suddenly becomes an easy call. And the players know this now. If America needs college football that badly, as Pence says, it will have to compensate the players to get it.