Thirteen years ago, Thabiti Lewis published Ballers of the New School, a book about race and sports in America that is critical of the structure of amateur athletics and the treatment of college athletes, especially in high-revenue sports.
Lewis, an English professor and associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at Washington State University Vancouver, talked with Washington State Magazine about developments allowing athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness.
You describe college athletics as a business that “exploits an amateur labor force that is expected to train and produce like professionals.”
When my book came out, this was a big debate—should college athletes be paid? I used hard language to describe how the system treats student-athletes: exploitation, sharecropping, and usury.
College sports are an enormous business. Bowl games bring in millions of dollars. College football and basketball coaches earn million-dollar salaries, and many athletics directors are paid as well as college presidents.
The vast majority of college athletes in the highest revenue producing sports—male and female—happen to be students of color. It is offensive to say that students who are generating these revenues shouldn’t benefit from their own name, image, and likeness.
For example, Ed O’Bannon’s likeness was used in a popular video game after he led UCLA to the 1995 NCAA Division 1 men’s national basketball championship. He never earned any money from the video game. That’s problematic.
What has NIL accomplished for college athletes?
For elite athletes, there’s less pressure to try to go professional before you’re ready. Players that are highly touted—like the Alabama quarterback Bryce Young—might wait to go pro until their junior year. They might think, “Why not? I could be in college, be a kid, earn some money without the pressure of playing professionally, and earn a degree or get closer to one.”
If I’m coming from a poor socioeconomic background, this is going to help.
For female athletes, I remain concerned about how race and notions of beauty seem to be factors in NIL deals. While basketball is perhaps the top sport for female athletes and black women are very visible in basketball, the highest paid female athlete in college sports is a white gymnast from Louisiana State University.
What about student-athletes who don’t have a shot at going pro?
I think NIL is far more helpful than people realize for students who aren’t superstar material but are still star players for their universities. Every institution is going to have a star, and those stars are going to be compensated at different levels.
You’ve been critical of the quality of education for some college athletes, saying they get shortchanged.
Indeed. We talk about educational integrity, and NIL hasn’t changed anything here. Athletes in high revenue sports have lower GPAs—not because they aren’t as smart, but the time demands are that much more rigorous. I asked a wide receiver (I won’t say which school), “Tell me what your daily schedule is.”
He said, “I get up and I work out. I have breakfast, I have a meeting with a position coach, and then we review some film and training. We have practice. My classes are all online so I can check into those later.”
Think about March Madness. If we really cared about academics, it wouldn’t take place during mid-terms. If a team makes it to the Final Four, the players are effectively away from campus the entire month of March!
For even the most well-intentioned athletic directors, the need to win creates a conundrum. They have to keep alumni and donors happy and money coming in. At the same time, they want the students to graduate and have a fulfilling academic experience. Serve one and lose the other. It’s a tough balance.
What about proposals to cap student-athletes’ NIL earnings?
It’s condescending when people say, “There should be a spending cap, because people could take advantage of college athletes.” People have taken advantage of them. Institutions have exploited their name, image, and likeness.
Before you put limitations in place for players, regulate coaches’ salaries. No coach can earn over $500,000. If it’s supposed to be pure, let’s keep it pure. Are they willing to coach for the love of the game?
A better deal (Washington State Magazine, Fall 2023)
Collegiate Athletics in the 21st Century (Essay by Thabiti Lewis, Winter 2011, Washington State Magazine)