California recognized student-athletes as workers, and D.C. should follow suit

College sports drive billions in profits to universities and are watched by millions of people. But collegiate athletics are also performed by students who do not get any of the money they help generate.

California made headlines earlier this month when its lawmakers passed a bill allowing college athletes at public and private universities to be compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness. College athletes at California universities can also hire agents to represent them in any endorsement and licensing deals. The New York and South Carolina legislatures are poised to consider similar bills. But the legislation contradicts longstanding rules imposed by the governing organization of college athletics: the National Collegiate Athletics Association.

The NCAA demands that its workers perform at least 20 hours of work every week for no pay. But California and other state legislatures know the NCAA cannot continue making billions of dollars off the work of unpaid employees, and the D.C. Council should follow suit. The District should pass legislation recognizing student-athletes for who they are – workers who deserve to be paid.

The NCAA argues that college athletes must not be paid to keep a “level playing field” in the recruiting process and in competition, because universities that can afford to pay athletes could outbid other institutions. But universities can profit off the appearances of their athletes. Schools use student-athletes to boost alumni donations and rake in funds from tickets sales and publicity contracts.

Student-athletes often deal with grueling practice schedules and hours of team workouts on top of their academics, preventing them from working jobs. Scholarships help to offset the costs of living at an expensive institution like GW, but many students can still struggle to support themselves in their day-to-day lives.

Student-athletes have more obligations to the University and less time to earn money to support themselves financially. While athletic scholarships are offered to student-athletes, scholarships are not enough for students who cannot afford to attend college. Allowing them to profit off their names would help student-athletes provide for their families and live comfortably.

Students often find jobs or paid internships to supplement their food budgets, but student-athletes cannot do so because Division I athletes commit to at least 20 hours of practice per week. Non-athletes might spend those 20 hours earning money. For students whose families struggle to get by, playing sports might be the only way to afford college – the NCAA offers 150,000 full scholarships to Division I and II athletes. But playing sports can also make it harder for them to be able to help at home.

Some fans and college administrators could argue that student-athletes are students first and their athletics are part of their extracurriculars, adding that they are already paid in scholarship funds. But scholarships are an enticement or necessity for students, not compensation for the work they do. Paying athletes for their work is a labor rights issue. The NCAA’s belief that a fair college game necessitates a lack of pay for players shows the organization’s greed, because they pocket all of the money that players might otherwise earn. Money from the NCAA is redistributed to schools, but the majority of it does not go to the players.

Until recently, searching for an athlete’s name on the NCAA online shop returned results including that player’s jersey. In other words, the NCAA made a profit on an amateur’s name while the player was not allowed to earn a dime. In 2008, the NCAA and two other companies made a video game that included the physical likenesses and jersey numbers of then-current and former college basketball players. One of those athletes sued the NCAA for using his features in an ongoing lawsuit. The NCAA, and GW, can treat their workers better.

GW basketball tacks posters showing players around campus to advertise games and makes money off ticket sales. The Smith Center displays corporate sponsors throughout the facility to bring in more money for the University than players will ever see. GW is complicit in profiting off its players without ensuring their well-being. The University and the D.C. Council must fight for players’ rights to profit off their likeness and performance.

Matthew Zachary, a junior majoring in international affairs, is a columnist. 

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