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Do Student Athletes Have Any Power?

Students dance following University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe's resignation announcement Monday, Nov. 9, 2015, at the school in Columbia, Mo.

Students dance following University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe's resignation announcement Monday, Nov. 9, 2015, at the school in Columbia, Mo.

Several weeks of student protest and a six-day hunger strike over the handling of racial tension on a college campus resulted in nothing.

Last weekend, a group of black football players at the University of Missouri joined the protest. The student-athletes tweeted that they would not play until the university’s president resigns.

Tim Wolfe, the president of the University of Missouri, quit the next day.

The student-athletes’ action is part of a growing movement around the U.S. Student athletes increasingly find they have the power to demand changes in their relationship to their schools.

Changing public opinion

College football players often get scholarships and some benefits, like health insurance, from their schools. At one time, many thought that they received a “free education” in exchange for playing a game.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, controls college sports. NCAA rules say the time spent on sports should not be more than 20 hours a week. But many spend more time on sports than on studying.

Kain Colter was a football player at Northwestern University. He said playing college football takes up 50 hours a week or more. He gave up plans to study medicine because he did not have time to study. At some universities, athletes take easy classes so they can pass without spending much time on study.

Earning money from student-athletes

The principle of amateurism in college sports says student-athletes are amateurs. They cannot earn money to play the game like professional athletes do.

Yet across the U.S., schools with large sports programs earn huge amounts of money with their athletic programs. In 2012, college athletic programs earned over $11 billion dollars from ticket sales, radio and television receipts, alumni contributions, guarantees, royalties, student fees, institutional and government support.

The NCAA itself earned $10.8 billion in 2013 for broadcast rights of college games. It even sold a video game using college players as game characters. Two groups of college football players brought antitrust lawsuits against the NCAA and won $40 million dollars in a 2014 decision.

Stanford University Economic Professor Roger Noll writes about the economics of college sports. He says that college coaches receive the money that in professional sports “would have been paid to the players … If we go back to 2000, it was unusual to have any coach make more than a million dollars a year, but now we have a whole bunch of them making five million.” (cited from a 2012 interview on

Noll says that the money creates an environment “where the athletic directors and the coaches end up running the university and they are the main beneficiaries of all the money that’s coming into the sport.”

Attempt to form a union

In 2013, football players from Northwestern University questioned the system where coaches earn up to $5 million a year and the students play for free. The student-athletes tried to start a union. They wanted to receive payment like employees of the university.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) said in August that it cannot decide to accept the union. A higher court, perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court, will have to decide the case.

Changes in the system

Some of the student-athletes’ demands have brought small changes to the system. Starting this year, a school can give a small amount of money to student athletes to help pay their “Cost of Attendance.” The average yearly payment is between $2,000 and $3,000. That does not compare to the million-dollar salaries that professional athletes earn.

ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas says players will have to go on strike, or refuse to play, to get what they want.

“You have a multi-billion dollar business here, and the athletes are being treated like they are somehow high school or little league players. That's obviously not the case. When you are selling these players for billions of dollars, they are professionals … The players at some point are going to have to decide that their leverage is in playing all together. The players are ultimately going to have to walk to get what they want.”

Last week the Missouri University Tigers football players did just that. They threatened to stay away from the game on November 14. If they did not play, the University of Missouri would have lost $1 million. A longer walkout would have cost the university even more on ticket sales and money from TV broadcast rights.

I’m Jill Robbins.

Now it’s your turn. Do universities where you live support student athletes? Do you think student athletes should earn money for playing sports? Write to us in the Comments section or on our Facebook page.

Dr. Jill Robbins wrote this story with additional material from Dan Friedell for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.


Words in This Story

coachn. a person who teaches and trains the members of a sports team and makes decisions about how the team plays during games

scholarshipn. an amount of money that is given by a school, an organization, etc., to a student to help pay for the student's education

amateurn. a person who does something (such as a sport or hobby) for pleasure and not as a job

antitrustadj. (law) protecting against unfair business practices that limit competition or control prices

strike v. (labor) to refuse to work until your employer does what you want

leveragen. influence or power used to achieve a desired result

walk (out)v. (informal) to go on strike, to leave somewhere suddenly especially as a way of showing disapproval

recruitv. to find suitable people and get them to join a company, an organization, the armed forces, etc

racismn. poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race

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