America’s university sports system sucks in young, disproportionately poor, often black men and rips them off. US college sports, overseen by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a billion dollar business.
It is also the pool from which professional leagues like the NFL and the NBA draft their players. With few exceptions, young athletes who want to make it must go through the college system. Their recruitment to a successful college will help that school and the NCAA earn tens of millions of dollars in ticket and kit sales and media rights. And that’s not even counting the priceless contribution to a school’s reputation for sporting prowess, which in turn attracts more students, more talented recruits, which in turn helps earn more money. The coaches of basketball and football teams in these places are often the highest paid employees in the state, earning millions of dollars each. Not only is it the NCAA rules that they cannot be paid while colleges earn millions from their labour, but they can’t even profit from their own names, image or likeness. As they play for free, risking injury just ahead of the sporting prime of their lives, they can’t sign a t-shirt, accept individual sponsorship deals, or benefit commercially while they are part of the NCAA. Many can’t even get a side job in order to earn some extra dollars, not that they would have time on top of training and school demands.
NCAA 2018 research shows that of the 73,063 players recruited to play top level college football that year, just 253 were drafted to the NFL.
Basketball is even worse. 18,712 young men were recruited, but just 50 of them were drafted, a rate of 1.2%. Of course there are those who don’t go on to play their chosen sport professionally who will say the NCAA provided a path to a world class education and opportunities they would never have previously thought possible. But many of the players in the college system will reflect something else entirely. In basketball and football in particular, young, often black men from low income families have described arriving at university and lacking the means to feed themselves, let alone being able to benefit from a free education. The least lucky might even get injured and, depending on which school they go to, have scholarships and healthcare benefits revoked. There is a marked absence of leadership on this from the NCAA, an organisation whose basketball division has recently been under federal investigation for corruption. There is a marked absence of leadership on this from the NCAA, an organisation whose basketball division has recently been under federal investigation for corruption. But the solutions available to the only system in the world that melds commercially lucrative elite sport and university educations are not immediately.