“Just Win, Baby!” was the motto made famous by legendary Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis. His philosophy was that simple. Along the way the Raiders gained a reputation as one of the dirtiest, most penalized, but successful teams in professional football. Collegiate athletics seems to have adopted Davis’s philosophy as compliance and education are threatened by the very big business of college sports.

In Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America, I contend that the system of college athletics no longer works for the realities of the 21st century. There is simply too much media exposure and money at stake. For example, teams playing in Bowl Championship Series football bowl games earned their conferences from $5 to $18 million. The coaches at most top schools earn $1 million or more annually.

Illustration David Wheeler
Illustration David Wheeler

Mark Emmert, who two years ago replaced the late Myles Brand as president of the NCAA, has been winning serious revenue for college football and basketball programs. In 2010 he signed a new television contract for its annual March Madness basketball tournament, extended its field of teams, watched the realignment of several storied football conferences and rivalries, and encouraged lucrative network deals for new conferences and in some cases teams. Meanwhile, at Ohio State University, University of North Carolina, Auburn, USC, West Virginia, Miami, and Oregon, serious violations have either occurred or been charged against athletes in the revenue producing sports. I predict this is just the beginning.

With so much money at stake, compliance and educational goals will never exceed the importance of winning games to generate revenue. I do not blame coaches and players caught up in recent violations. I blame a system that willfully ignores a changed world.

Football and basketball generate more revenue than all other sports combined. These sports are also loaded with African American athletes who comprise most of the star power, especially basketball players. They also have the worst graduation rates among collegiate athletes.

The only way to protect them and student athletes in general from being financially exploited and jeopardizing their education is to allow them a much greater financial remittance plus a three-year guaranteed scholarship commitment instead of the current one that is renewed annually.

What primetime college athletes produce is extremely valuable. A recent study, “The Price of Poverty in Big Time College Sport,” jointly produced by the National College Players Association and Drexel University professor Ellen J. Staurowsky, reveals that the average Football Bowl Subdivision player, if allowed access to the free market, would be worth $121,000 per year, while the average basketball player at that level would be worth $265,000.

The primary mission of the university is education, not football or basketball rankings. This is difficult to remember when sports drive such a large part of the economic engine of modern universities. Former NCAA and University of Oregon president Myles Brand revealed the importance of sports as early as the 1980s when the University of Oregon was facing federal cutbacks. He grew the popularity of Oregon’s big-time sports programs, which drew increased out-of-state tuition dollars. It became a proven formula that will be difficult to change.

But change it must. The truth of the matter is that media exposure makes college athletes celebrities, and they should be able to share the profit from their celebrity. This is not the 1970s. In the 21st century student athletes must receive ample compensation. If the athletes at Ohio State, USC, or Miami were being properly compensated, they would not sell rings, signatures and jerseys, or take money from agents and friends of the programs.

People forget that the Ivy Leagues once were what the Southeastern Conference and Big Ten are today—titans of collegiate football. In 1905, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton presidents and football coaches, shocked by the level of violence in college football, met with President Theodore Roosevelt to discuss restoring the nobility of the game. [1] (This group would form the core of what is today known as the NCAA.)

Today, the NCAA should convene equally crucial meetings with university presidents to address the new reality of collegiate athletics: It is a business that exploits an amateur labor force that is expected to train and produce like professionals. And while the solutions they will have to reach—such as paying athletes far more money, prioritizing academics over athletics, making lengthy scholarship commitments, and rewarding coaches for academic performance—will be economically painful, it will restore the integrity and nobility of football and basketball.

Let’s face it, the money will only grow. Many students looking for a college want to attach themselves to a winner so they choose institutions with successful athletic programs. [2] Ask the admissions directors of Auburn and Oregon or teams that made the men’s basketball Final Four how high the out-of-state admissions jumped (the average for schools in BCS championship games is roughly 30 percent), or how many points the SAT profiles climbed.

Sport is both a great marketing and economic tool. Even our own Washington State University athletic department gained a $20 million network windfall for being a member of the powerful new PAC-12. This money will go toward building facilities that will allow WSU to compete and grow its sports brand, which will help market other aspects of the university and the research of its faculty.

Everyone, in fact, stands to benefit except the players who generate this enormous profit. The state of college athletics in the 21st century has to be about more than winning at all costs. The new motto that should emerge from a gathering of the NCAA and university presidents should be “Just Learn Baby” and the new promise, “We Will Pay You an Equitable Share of the Pie You Helped to Bake.”

This I am ready to tailgate and cheer for.

[1] See my discussion of the history of college sports and the culture of greed in Chapter 5 of Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America, pp. 177-182.

[2] See Murray Sperber’s intriguing discussion about this in Beer and Circus: How Bigtime Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education.


Thabiti Lewis teaches English and African American Studies at WSU Vancouver. He is the author of Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America (Third World Press) and of the forthcoming book Conversations with Toni Cade Bambara (University Press of Mississippi).