The coronavirus pandemic has tested many industries in the United States, including the NCAA and the American college sports complex as a whole. Among other things, the current push to start the 2020 college football season on time highlights the disquieting fact that (mostly white) collegiate athletic departments are largely funded by the labor of their (mostly Black) athletes who put their bodies on the line for their schools, but don’t receive much of their net worth over the course of their collegiate careers. Sordid as the NCAA’s plantation-esque structure is, that’s not the only injustice coronavirus has brought to light within the world of college sports. From racial inequity in locker rooms to food insecurity at athletic training tables to lax safety measures on the field, the pandemic is revealing to the general public many unsettling realities that NCAA critics have taken note of for years. As universities scramble to salvage a football season—and the accompanying revenue—we’re seeing just how little the NCAA and its member schools care about the athletes they oversee.
College athletes aren’t happy. And for good reason. Now, they’re fighting back.
Last Saturday, news broke that a group of Pac-12 football players has threatened to boycott the 2020 season if player safety and racial justice demands are not met. As a former Division 1 athlete myself, I’m in full support of the potential movement—college athletes deserve much better than the treatment their universities, conferences, and the NCAA are giving them right now. That’s why a college football boycott this Fall, followed by a March Madness boycott in the Spring are of vital importance in the upcoming athletic year: college athletes could accomplish decades worth of activism in far less time because the NCAA has never been more vulnerable than it is at this moment in history.
Contrary to popular belief, college football is not the big money-maker for the NCAA—the conferences and universities collect most of this revenue (the University of Wisconsin, for example, estimates that it will lose upwards of $100 million if its Fall football season doesn’t happen). The NCAA, on the other hand, earns roughly 80% of its annual revenue from its March Madness television deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting alone. However, there is an extenuating circumstances clause in that contract, so this past year when coronavirus cancelled the national tournament, the NCAA’s revenue, roughly half of which it redistributes to member schools, was slashed by hundreds of millions of dollars. Should college basketball players sit out March Madness this coming Spring, CBS/Turner would likely cut a huge sum of the NCAA’s profit again in light of such an unforeseen event that would probably lead to a dip in viewership and television ratings.
Which begs the question: Can the NCAA go two consecutive years without a large chunk of 80% of its annual revenue?
If college basketball players sit out March Madness in 2021, the Association won’t have a choice but to find out through experimentation. The move could be particularly lethal if more football players join the Pac-12 and boycott the 2020 Fall season—those athletes would essentially hit their universities in the wallet in the Fall, then basketball players could do the same to the NCAA in the Spring for an unmatchable one-two punch.
This basketball season, the ball is in the athletes’ court, so I encourage them to draft a list of demands for the NCAA to fulfill (including rights to their names, images, and likenesses, comprehensive healthcare, honest reporting practices for coach abuse, employee protections, etc.), and threaten to sit out the tournament if the NCAA doesn’t comply. The timing for a mass protest couldn’t be better, especially because the NCAA’s emergency funds are nearly dry since the Association has been doling out legal fees for years, and has spent roughly $750,000 this past year lobbying to keep amateurism intact. The NCAA literally cannot afford to not listen to its athletes.
Fittingly, much like in a tight football or basketball game, the pressure is on the players and time is of the essence, as the window for meaningful activism is smaller than some might believe. We’re seeing the clock wind down for football players as the Fall season is fast approaching, but a basketball boycott is also time-sensitive, in that it must take place during this upcoming athletic year. Should players resume March Madness business as usual, they could actually help the NCAA get back on track financially and slow, or even reverse the wave of powerful athletic activism we have witnessed this summer. Boycotting—or threatening to boycott—the upcoming national tournament could serve as a landmark moment in the fight for the rights of college athletes. It’s also an opportunity that might not come again because the NCAA has never been as financially vulnerable as it is right now, and it will likely never be quite so fragile.
Athletes, on the other hand, have never been more powerful, and it’s clear they’re finally recognizing their strength. It’s time for them to defund the NCAA.
Katie Lever is a former Division 1 NCAA athlete and a current Ph. D student at the University of Texas at Austin, where she studies NCAA rhetoric in the Moody College of Communication. She is also a freelance sportswriter for LRT-sports.com, where her work informs prospective athletes about life in the NCAA. Follow her on Twitter: @LeverFever.