The Next Big Shift in College Sports
By Eromo Egbejule and Isabelle Lee
College sports are back. Take it from fans of the Virginia Tech Hokies. On Sept. 3, close to 70,000 of them screamed out the team’s entrance song, Enter Sandman by Metallica, at the 2021-22 season opener against the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. The Virginia Tech crowd was so amped up that their rendition of the rock classic registered as a seismographic activity.
But there are other tremors reshaping college sports. How will the U.S. Supreme Court’s summer ruling allowing student-athletes to make money from sponsorships play out on campuses? From colleges rethinking the role of sports to game-changing legal cases, in today’s Daily Dose we give you a courtside seat to the shifts that could fundamentally alter the relationship between the NCAA, school campuses and athletes.
Let’s Get Legal
The big bucks are set to start rolling in soon for college athletes across the U.S. after the NCAA’s ongoing attempts to limit students’ earnings suffered a series of setbacks. In June, a federal judge turned down a request by the collegiate body to block athletes from getting a cut from TV rights and earning revenue from their name, image and likeness. For years, the NCAA banned college athletes from receiving media or endorsement money (in what is a $14 billion industry) because of their status as students, preferring to give many full scholarships instead.
Last month, Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett delivered an order in Klaassen v. Trustees of Indiana University that permitted the latter to require all students be vaccinated against COVID-19. The judgment could have a ripple effect across the world of college sports in a climate where the reopening of schools and mask mandates have already polarized the nation. The eight students in the Indiana University case argued that the school’s vaccine requirement violates their 14th Amendment rights, even though a lower court had previously ruled against them. Hundreds of colleges across the U.S. now have similar vaccination mandates.
But vaccines and money aren’t the only things over which students are battling the NCAA. Last December, students from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) filed a class-action lawsuit against the body, alleging unfair penalization in its Academic Performance Program (APP). Under the program — designed to improve academic performance among student-athletes — the NCAA rewards schools with high scores. But the plaintiffs are arguing that the APP ignores the fact that HBCUs enroll low-income, at-risk students who are disadvantaged academically because of historic discrimination. The APP, by holding HBCUs to the same standards as students at mostly white institutions, “perpetuates a system that punishes Black student-athletes at HBCUs,” they say.
This summer, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights affirmed that Title IX will now be enforced against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as an interpretation of Bostock v. Clayton County, a landmark civil rights case involving a wrongful dismissal on the basis of sexual orientation. As schools reopen, the federal government’s decision could be critical in addressing continuing discrimination against LGBTQ college athletes. For its part, the NCAA has now pledged not to hold events in states that are not welcoming to transgender athletes.
Life on Campus for Athletes
Different Admissions Standards
Yet student-athletes aren’t always victims. They can also be beneficiaries of unequal standards on campus. In 2019, Stanford fired its head sailing coach for accepting bribes to help certain students gain admission by naming them as recruits, a scandal detailed in a recent Netflix documentary. The so-called “special admits” are held to different academic standards, including lower SAT/ACT scores and GPAs, a practice that has been described by critics as the “original sin of college sports.” At the University of Pennsylvania, students for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle were not required to submit standardized test scores . . . but recruited athletes were, as required by Ivy League policies. Could this be a mechanism for leveling the playing field between special admits and students?
College athletes at Division I schools, especially those who rely on sports for income, are often pushed toward less onerous majors to accommodate their rigorous training and game schedules. It’s called “clustering” — when 25% or more of a single team enrolls in the same major. At the University of Oregon, for instance, athletes cluster in the social sciences. At the University of California Los Angeles, they pick history. In a survey of more than 600 college athletes at schools in the Big Ten Conference and other sports powerhouses, researcher Amanda Paule-Koba at Bowling Green State University in Ohio found that 30% of the students were not pursuing majors that aligned with their interests or career goals.
Is It a Myth?
Is it possible to be a student and an athlete at a top school? Schools have long cultivated the myth of amateurism to justify not paying athletes. But the challenges of being a student at an academically oriented school can cut both ways. Data from Harvard’s class of 2020 revealed that 1 in 4 athletes left their sport while at the university for reasons ranging from mental health concerns and injuries to a loss of interest in their chosen athletic field. In 2016, Brown University revealed that roughly one-third of their students quit their sport.
Beats an On-Campus Job!
Most students earn minimum wage for on-campus jobs. But not Quinn Ewers of Ohio State football. He’s earning $1.5 million for his contributions to the team thanks to the recent Supreme Court ruling on student-athletes. Ewers was initially the top high school prospect in the recruiting class for 2022, but he decided to skip his senior year and join the class of 2021 to bypass a Texas law blocking high school athletes from making money from their sport. The quarterback has signed deals with a beverage company and car dealership.
Rethinking Sports in Schools
Like in professional sports, mental health among college athletes is finally taking center stage as a subject of research and debate. Though student-athletes are less likely to commit suicide than the general population or other undergraduates, a 2020 survey of NCAA players found a pandemic-spawned crisis. Reports of mental health concerns were 150% to 250% higher than in previous survey years. When it comes to student-athletes, males are more at risk of suicide than females, and Black athletes are more vulnerable than their white counterparts. The highest suicide rates are among male football players.
Is Wellness the Way?
In 2012, Spelman College, the Atlanta-based, all-women HBCU, decided to disband its sports teams and reinvest that money into wellness programs, from mental health counseling to Zumba. The college of 2,200 students had only about 80 athletes when the decision was made, but the athletics budget was $900,000 — funds that are now being directed at the entire student body. With the pandemic forcing schools to drastically cut costs amid deepening mental health concerns, some experts are calling for Spelman’s model to be embraced by more universities and colleges — especially since a majority of athletic programs fail to generate significant fan interest despite heavy investments.
International students increasingly constitute a significant chunk of students on campus, with Canada the leading source of Division 1 athletes and tennis the most popular college sport among them. In 2019, nearly 13% of male college athletes were international students. Unfortunately, student visa stipulations prevent international student-athletes from profiting off their likeness as their American peers can. Some lawmakers are trying to change that. One idea is to make it easier for international students to get a professional visa instead of a student one, which would allow them to make money during their collegiate career.
Year of the HBCU
More and more recruits are opting for HBCUs over traditional sports powerhouses. They want to “make the HBCU movement real,” says Makur Maker, a former basketball recruit at Howard University and the only five-star player to choose an HBCU. Maker, who now plays professionally in Australia, hopes that his choosing of Howard University will inspire other young Black athletes to do the same. With his sights set on the NBA, he will take a road rarely traveled if he makes it: There are only two HBCU alumni playing in the NBA today.