A Sporting Chance: Experts Weigh in on Debate Over Student-Athlete Pay After New Lawsuit Is Filed

Having recently suited up for the last time as a linebacker for the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)Bruins, Kene Orjioke, 20, looks forward to graduating this June without owing a dime for his college education.

“Obviously a lot of students leave college in debt, and the ability for us to leave college debt-free and get a good education, depending on what you

Kene Orjioke, former UCLA student-athlete
Kene Orjioke, former UCLA student-athlete

choose to study, is obviously huge,” Orjioke says of himself and other student-athletes who attend college on athletic scholarships.

Be that as it may, when Orjioke considers all the millions of dollars in revenue generated by college sports through lucrative broadcast deals — as well as the seven-figure salaries commanded by the nation’s top college football and basketball coaches — he believes that student-athletes should get a bigger slice of the pie.

“I’m definitely grateful for what we [receive], and it’s a huge blessing, but for the amount of hours we put in, I think we should be paid significantly more — particularly when coaches are making $3 million a year,” says Orjioke, who serves on the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) Division I Football Oversight Committee as well as its Student-Athlete Legislative Advisory Committee.

“I don’t think that’s very fair,” Orjioke adds.

Fair or not, the issue of pay for college athletes is far from settled.

In a ruling this past fall saying it is permissible for the NCAA to restrict colleges from compensating athletes beyond the cost of attendance, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the principle of “amateurism” in college sports.

However, another case winding its way through the courts could upset the status quo and break the legal barriers that allow the NCAA to restrict student compensation.

Jeffrey Kessler, sports labor attorney
Jeffrey Kessler, sports labor attorney

The lawsuit — filed by New York City-based sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler — alleges that the NCAA and five major conferences earn “billions of dollars in revenues each year through the hard work, sweat, and sometimes broken bodies of top-tier college football and men’s basketball athletes who perform services … in the big business of college sports.”

Orjioke knows firsthand what it’s like to have his body broken. A knee injury all but ended his college football career in 2014.

Kessler’s lawsuit claims that the NCAA and its member colleges have entered into “agreements with the avowed purpose and effect of placing a ceiling on the compensation that may be paid to these athletes for their services.”

“Those restrictions are pernicious, a blatant violation of the antitrust laws, have no legitimate pro-competitive justification, and should now be struck down,” Kessler contends in the lawsuit.

Allen R. Sanderson, a senior lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of Chicago, says the lawsuit represents “the ultimate showdown” in the fight over whether student-athletes should be paid. If the courts agree that the ceiling represents price-fixing in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, “it’s an entirely different ballgame,” Sanderson says.

“It doesn’t mean Alabama or Duke couldn’t run a basketball or football program and pay [students] whatever they want, including [nothing],” Sanderson explains. “But they just [wouldn’t be able to] collude with 100 or 200 universities and the NCAA in setting that wage.”

Although many Division I student-athletes receive a free college education in exchange for their services, Sanderson says the reality is that many players are being steered toward a “Mickey Mouse curriculum that has no economic value.”

He says the plight of student-athletes often goes something like this: “I have to take all of my courses between 10 in the morning and one in the afternoon because the coach owns me from six in the morning until 10 a.m. and from 2 p.m. until 10 at night.”

At its annual convention this past January, the NCAA dropped a set of proposed rules that would have placed more restrictions on how much time coaches can demand from student-athletes. Among other things, the proposed rules would have prohibited athletic activity for a consecutive eight-hour period overnight and given student-athletes a discretionary period of at least two weeks at the end of a season and a full day off during the week to offset the impact of time spent traveling.

Orjioke — who is majoring in political science and government.— recalls having a rigorous routine throughout his college football career that began with waking up at 5 a.m. to work out.

“If you are a starting player on a college athletics team, you earn every cent and much more of that scholarship because of the level of competition, the demands from the different coaches,” Orjioke says.

A new NCAA study reveals that student-athletes are devoting more and more time to athletics, as well as academics, and less time to sleeping, socializing, and relaxing. For instance, Division I student-athletes reported spending 38.5 hours per week on athletics in 2015 — up from 35.5 hours per week in 2010 — and six hours and 16 minutes sleeping on a typical in-season weeknight, down 13 minutes from what they reported in 2010.

Despite the demands placed on student-athletes, many question whether it would be fair for regular students to have to subsidize student-athletes’ college education.

“I’m sure there would be a backlash from regular students because a lot of them have to take out loans,” Orjioke concedes. “But any student who would speak against us receiving [pay] doesn’t understand what we have to go through. I would ask them to spend a week in our shoes, and then they would understand.”

Sanderson says there is a socioeconomic aspect to consider as well. Specifically, he says that while most college football and basketball coaches are white, most college football and basketball players are black — an assertion that’s backed by The 2014 College Sport Racial and Gender Report Card, published by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.

“If these were all white kids who went to Deerfield Academy in high school and their parents [had] Donald Trump wealth, you would say, ‘Yeah, you’re screwing them over, but it’s not the end of the world,’” Sanderson says “But the guys who are most exploited are the least well-off financially.”

However, not everyone agrees with the notion that college athletes are being “exploited.”

“The popular criticisms that student-athletes are being cheated in some way because the university is profiting from their labor and they don’t get anything in return are ridiculous,” Barbara Osborne, an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argues in a paper titled “The Myth of the Exploited Student-Athlete.”

Beyond being given a college education — the recipients of which she notes tend to earn 98 percent more per hour than those without one and who are 75 percent less likely to be unemployed — Osborne says that student-athletes get other intangible benefits, such as the chance to compete in front of large crowds and on television.

And although NCAA rules limit how a student-athlete can be compensated, they do not limit the value that student-athletes can receive, Osborne mentions, noting that student-athletes still make “free-market decisions” by choosing which college to attend.

“The value of an education, the cost of tuition, room, board, books, fees, and the cost of attendance — plus the bundle of athletics-related benefits and services — vary tremendously across institutions,” Osborne says.

Yet Kessler is unmoved by such arguments.

“Most Division I basketball and football players will not spend one day in the NBA or the NFL so ‘showcasing’ for those leagues has no value to them,” Kessler says.

He also contends that most student-athletes are steered away from study programs that would distract [them] from their teams, and so their degrees don’t hold as much value.

“For these players, this is their one shot to earn a fair share of the hundreds of millions of dollars they collectively generate for their schools,” Kessler says. “All we are seeking is to free the schools and conferences to decide for themselves how they believe it is fair to treat these athletes.”

However, there could be a downside to paying student-athletes, Osborne maintains, as many of these students don’t spend much time on the field or court.

“The current system provides full scholarships for 85 football players and 13 men’s basketball players,” Osborne notes in her paper. “Some student-athletes on a football team may never play in a single game, and many will have very limited playing time.”●

Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.