The coronavirus has disrupted U.S. college sports, but two new multimillion-dollar payouts to departing coaches highlight a controversy that pre-dates pandemic. Student athletes make money for their colleges but don’t get paid a dime, let alone millions of dollars.
In a new interview with Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer, Fox Sports host and former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho said he believes student players should be paid but called comparisons between college sports and modern-day slavery “hyperbolic.”
“It's a little hyperbolic, probably a lot of hyperbolic, to compare, really, anything to slavery,” noted Acho, whose book on race and racism “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” came out Nov. 10.
Before he published his book, Acho launched a YouTube series of the same name featuring himself talking about polarizing topics such as National Anthem protests, defund the police, and cancel culture with guests like NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and comedian Chelsea Handler. His book is No. 3 on the New York Times list of best-selling hardcover nonfiction books, after Matthew McConaughey’s “Greenlights.”
In his conversation with Yahoo Finance, Acho was asked about whether it was correct to compare unpaid college athletes to slaves, as some critics have done in recent years. Earlier this year, an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times by two physicians argued that the COVID-19 pandemic was laying bare exploitation of unpaid student athletes as colleges urged them to play despite health risks.
“Given that athletes are disproportionately Black in the biggest revenue-generating sports — football and basketball — this dynamic also evokes America’s horrific history of unpaid slave labor,” physicians Azmatullah Hussaini and Jules Lipoff wrote in the op-ed. “It’s hard to ignore the racist undertones when the financial benefit to these institutions is based on the unpaid work of young Black men.”
Black players do represent a disproportionate number of players in those two sports, according to NCAA data. In 2019, 56% of men’s Division I basketball players 49% of Division I football players were Black.
Still, Acho said, “It's always hyperbolic when you're making the slavery comparison. But I do think that college players should be paid.”
Acho, co-host of “Speak for Yourself” on Fox Sports, spoke to Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer in an episode of “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.
‘A bankrupt model’
The former linebacker is far from alone in contending college players should be paid.
In August, a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that college sports created substantial extra revenue for college and universities — money that was more likely to benefit white students from higher-income neighborhoods than Black students from poor neighborhoods. Professional players typically receive 50% of a team’s revenue in salary, the paper noted. If that model were used at colleges and players were paid equally, football players would earn $360,000 each a year and basketball players would get $500,000 a year.
In reality, student athletes might not get compensated equally if colleges started paying them. Former Division I basketball player Cody Davis argued in a New York Times op-ed last year that paying students would “ruin” college sports by incentivizing programs to pay “top dollar” for a select few athletes and participate in bidding wars they could little afford.
In California, a law set to go into effect in 2023 called the Fair to Play Act could strike a middle ground by allowing student athletes to earn money by signing endorsement deals without forcing colleges to pay them. Currently, NCAA rules don’t allow students to collect any pay related to their status as student athletes.
“Colleges reap billions from student athletes but block them from earning a single dollar,” Governor Gavin Newsom tweeted after he signed the law. “That’s a bankrupt model.”
Erin Fuchs is deputy managing editor at Yahoo Finance.