The NCAA is never going to fix itself. Government intervention may be what finally shames member schools into creating an equitable system for college athletes—or forces them to do so. On Thursday, Booker’s campaign released a “plan to end exploitation in sports.” It would address health, safety, and equity issues at all levels of sports, including the pay disparities protested by the U.S. women’s national soccer team. But Booker would focus mostly on college athletics. The issue of compensating college athletes—in money, not just in scholarships that don’t cover all of an athlete’s expenses and come with many strings attached—has begun to resonate nationally, and Booker’s plan would, among other things, allow college athletes to be paid for their name and likeness.
Booker is somewhat piggybacking off California’s Fair Pay to Play Act, recently signed by Governor Gavin Newsom. It grants college athletes the ability to make money off their name or likeness starting in 2023. Several other states, such as New York, Florida, and South Carolina, are considering similar proposals.
The inequities that pervade college sports are harder and harder to deny. “I think that these are young people that deserve to have fairness, equality and not be exploited, especially when you start looking at its disproportionate impact on the money generating sports, which are disproportionately African Americans,” Booker told me. “The lies that you’re told—I remember, in season, working 60, 70-plus hours a week. There are people that do run scams on [athletes], allowing them to get degrees or to move forward, but then they leave them again without an education. There’s a lot of injustice that’s going on.”
So far, though, the NCAA doesn’t seem at all interested in finding some middle ground with college athletes. After the California legislation passed that state’s Senate, the NCAA Board of Governors sent Newsom a letter that simply doubled down on the status quo. In the letter, the board wrote: “If the bill becomes law and California’s 58 NCAA schools are compelled to allow an unrestricted name, image and likeness scheme, it would erase the critical distinction between college and professional athletics and, because it gives those schools an unfair recruiting advantage, would result in them eventually being unable to compete in NCAA competitions.” The board also said: “The NCAA has consistently stood by its belief that student-athletes are students first, and they should not be employees of the university.”
That position might once have sounded reasonable; today, it’s just an excuse for blatantly taking advantage of college athletes. The time most college athletes dedicate is practically identical to a professional schedule, particularly in big-revenue sports such as basketball and football. In 2016, Turner Broadcasting and CBS Sports, which had already locked down the rights for the NCAA basketball title game until 2024, agreed to an $8.8 billion contract extension for another eight years—a deal that, for the first time, put the economic value of the tournament at more than a billion dollars a year.