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Income Is Not the Only Way Student Athletes Are Shortchanged



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The current conversation concerning student athlete exploitation in the United States, a popular topic in the nation’s social media, newspapers and state legislatures, is an important and overdue one. However, the question of whether National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) competitors should receive a share of ticket revenues or profits from marketing is just a sliver of what should be considered. The dialogue on salaries and royalties does, however, point up the importance of the larger picture of how society regards collegiate athletes.  Researchers have accumulated evidence for more than a decade that has suggested students who participate in collegiate sports often place themselves into situations of extreme physical danger and mental hardship (Lester and Gunn, 2013; McCarthy, 2019; Simmons, 2014; Weigand and Cohen, 2013). Nonetheless, the NCAA has not demanded that its member institutions undertake systemic changes to address this reality and prioritize student athletes’ wellness in meaningful ways. This essay places the collegiate players’ pay debate in the context of overall support for student athletes. I argue that the NCAA must change its operating model and expectations from one that most values profit generated by players to one that emphasizes holistic care for those athletes.

Most student athletes, irrespective of the success they achieve, will not receive funding and marketing support from their schools because of the sport they play or their roles on their teams. Athletic departments commonly classify their sports and teams into two or more tiers, based principally on their capacity to generate funds. Teams that can generate the most money are allocated the largest share of department budgets and services and receive the most attention as well (Lotiano and Zotos, 2014; Zotos, 2006).

Even among those teams classified as of Tier 1 significance, only a few athletes attain star status, a standing that depends as much on the whims of marketing preferences and coaching politics as on talent and hard work. Considering the sheer serendipity that must occur to happen to play in a Tier 1 sport and become a star on such a team, merely paying college athletes salaries will not prove sufficient by itself to ensure that all NCAA players feel valued.

Collegiate athletic programs create substantial pressure to perform, and the burden of that competitive, unforgiving atmosphere falls on the shoulders of participating students. With potential to derive substantial profits from increased recognition, colleges and universities have a strong incentive to win, especially in top tier sports. Accordingly, and not surprisingly, individual sport programs jockey for funding within NCAA-member athletic departments by winning and achieving national recognition. Coaches are pressured to show value for investment in their athletes as they defend their funding and seek higher status in their departments. This structure promotes a coaching and administrative ethos that demands high levels of athletic performance at virtually any cost.

For coaches, this too often means persuading their athletes that sports should come above all else, including their academic and personal lives. For participating students, this pressure translates to daily attempts to balance insistent demands for dedication and excellence in their sport with their academic aims and personal interests and growth. It also entails taking responsibility for any mental or physical hiccups that may occur when they are unable to balance adequately or fail to satisfy coaches’ desires for absolute dedication. As a result, anxiety, depression, burnout, shame, body dysmorphia, addictive behaviors and disordered eating are common among high level collegiate athletes, and suicide has become a growing problem as well (Elison and Partridge, 2009; Hill, Hall, Appleton, and Kozub, 2008; Lester and Gunn, 2013; McCarthy, 2019; Weigand and Cohen, 2013). These realities in turn make the transition to life outside of sports extremely difficult for student athletes when they graduate or suffer a career-ending injury (Anderson, 2012).   

Although individual people and programs in collegiate athletics do a lot to address these known adverse side-effects of competing in high-level sports, player life skills and sports counselor programs are underfunded and reach only a small fraction of eligible athletes (Sudano, 2016). Messages encouraging the development of athletes as individuals with varied interests and capacities in addition to their sports prowess are often countered by the dominant narrative that demands self-sacrifice to ensure sport performance (Beamon, 2012; Brown, and Glastetter-Fender, 2000; Dunn, Casgrove-Dunn, and McDonald, 2012).

This is to reiterate that the collegiate athletics system values participating athletes foremost as money makers, and that mindset trickles down from administrators to coaches and support staff, and finally to the students. Paying athletes for their services is one way of increasing the quality of life for some individuals and decreasing the power that college and university sports departments exercise over them. However, providing players’ salaries will not, by itself, address the underlying issue of how athletes are regarded and valued. In order to counter today’s too often harmful collegiate athletics culture, the NCAA needs to reorient all of its programming toward the goal of fostering the growth and development of its athletes as people, irrespective of their sport or how much, or little, revenue it generates for their respective higher education institutions.

 As a former NCAA Division I soccer player and distance runner, it has taken me a long time to make sense of my athletic involvement. While, as I reflect, I value much of my experience as a student athlete, I have also come to recognize that it inflicted a fair amount of trauma on me. I now can see the deficiencies of the system and how those are reflected in the messaging that pervades today’s sports narrative. I hope that the current debate concerning student athlete pay can kindle a broader conversation concerning participants’ mental health and well-being. I also hope that these discussions can shed light on the problems with how sports departments and organizations care for student athletes. Ultimately, I believe that recognition of these systemic shortcomings holds promise to create a better, more respectful environment for collegiate athletes; one that values them as human beings and not simply as cash generators.

Such a shift could begin with a change in university valuation of athletic departments and with an examination of their mission statements. Hopefully, that step, undertaken sincerely, would result in the hiring of enough sports psychology and life-skills professionals to proactively assist all students with their efforts to balance their lives as they participate in sports programs and also to plan for their futures post-athletics. It might also spur a shift in focus from a few Tier 1 “revenue” sports to a more equitable or merit-based allocation of resources. That move, in turn, could provide resources that would allow all coaches and staff members to learn and grow in their capabilities to support student athletes. The NCAA should encourage these changes by leveling the playing field for all departments, requiring base standards for compliance and rewarding exemplar models.

As is obvious today, changes in the profit-driven policies of collegiate athletics, such as those proposed here, will not occur easily or automatically. Public pressure and state government legislation have instigated movement on the compensation for players issue and the NCAA and athletic departments are slowly and begrudgingly adapting. Continued pressure by advocates and legislators will be paramount in achieving a well-rounded and respectful experience for future collegiate athletes.


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Stephanie Lovely

Stephanie Lovely is a PhD candidate in Agricultural, Leadership and Community Education in the College of Agriculture and life Sciences at Virginia Tech. She received her Bachelor's degree from Oklahoma State University in Athletic Training, where she competed as a varsity soccer and track athlete. She attained her Master’s degree from the University of Kentucky in Community Leadership and Development where her research centered on using educational theory in student athlete life skills and transition programming. Her current research focuses on the role of green infrastructure in community development. Her interests are in using systems thinking to advocate for social and environmental justice.  

Publication Date

February 20, 2020