U.S. Senator Murphy, Draymond Green: College sports can't return to business as usual

Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images; Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

As mostly white college athletic directors require their mostly Black football players to return to campus for "voluntary" workouts amid a growing pandemic, we can no longer ignore how both the COVID-19 crisis and the growing movement for civil justice require us to have an urgent conversation about the fundamental inequities in college sports today.

Many Americans would say that a debate over the future of college athletics can wait, but in fact, it has never been more necessary. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others have forced a long-overdue reckoning about the institutions in our society that are built on a foundation of systemic racism. This includes college sports such as football and basketball -- part of a system in which predominantly white executives, coaches, athletic directors and others profit off the unpaid labor of majority Black players. And with thousands of college athletes being brought back to school for workouts in places where the virus is expanding, not contracting, many college athletes might be forced to choose between their health and safety, and their athletic scholarship.

As a former standout college athlete and current professional athlete, and a national policymaker and lifelong college sports fan, we are both rooting for games to resume as soon as it's safe. But we also believe that these twin crises have laid bare for America the not-always-obvious distinction between the two classes of sports -- those played by paid professionals and those played by unpaid college athletes. Now is the time to wrestle with this vanishing difference.

Professional athletes will no doubt bear some risk when they return to play, but they get paid. College athletes will return to the field and court with similar risks and get paid nothing. It isn't, of course, that their labor isn't profitable. It is immensely so, and the return of college football in the fall will make many adults who profit off college athletics very rich. But many of the schools these athletes play for will not even provide the health insurance to help pay the costs of care should an athlete get sick. This is an abomination, and it demonstrates how COVID-19 has made clear that it's time for college sports to change the way that business is done.

Recently, a lot of discussion and debate has focused on the ability of college athletes to profit from their own name, image and likeness (NIL). We both believe this is a matter of simple fairness and have called for the NCAA to allow athletes full rights to their NIL in earning endorsements, just like any other student. However, we believe this is just a baby step toward reform.

One Power 5 conference football coach, Mike Gundy, in a striking moment of candor, said in April that despite the risks, college football players need to get back on the field so that schools can start to once again "run money through the state." It was a recognition that a student's value is much more than just the price of a jersey with his name on it. Television networks make millions selling ads based upon viewers who want to tune in and watch college football stars play. The apparel companies who outfit the athletes rake in cash off their connection to the players.

And the schools' brands are often shaped more by high-profile athletes than academic achievement. Ask yourself, is Michigan State the same brand without Magic Johnson, or UConn without athletes like Ray Allen? Every college's brand relies on the sweat of its athletes, and they use that brand to sign broadcast deals and apparel contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Today, college sports is a $14 billion industry, according to the U.S. Department of Education -- triple the amount it made just 15 years ago -- and the networks, shoe companies and colleges all benefit handsomely.

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The lack of rights for college athletes is also a civil rights issue, and it should be front and center in the long overdue, growing fight for racial justice across America. While Black men make up just 2.4% of undergraduate students at Power 5 conference schools, they represent 55% of football players and 56% of men's basketball players, according to a 2018 study from the University of Southern California's Race and Equity Center. Their coaches and athletic directors and college presidents are overwhelmingly white. And so are the CEOs and board members of the shoe companies and television networks and betting websites who will become millionaires off the labor of young Black men.

The schools will suggest that athletes do get paid -- with a scholarship. That's an insulting argument, akin to a coal mine refusing to pay its employees in anything other than company scrip. Yes, a scholarship has value, but many athletes are not allowed to capitalize on their "free" education because schools make sure they are treated as athletes first and students second. Graduation rates for athletes in revenue sports -- especially Black athletes -- fall well below their peers, and athletic programs routinely counsel athletes out of meaningful coursework to make room for athletic commitments. Moreover, even when the full value of a scholarship is factored in, the NCAA's priorities are clear: Approximately 12% of all revenue goes to student aid for nearly 45,000 athletes, while 16% goes toward paying salaries for 4,400 coaches, according to spending data across all Power Five athletic programs as reported in the Department of Education's Equity in Athletics database. In other words, one coach earns as much as a dozen athletes' scholarships combined.

The reasons to reform college athletics existed before the eruption of civil rights protests and before the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is not lost on us that the NCAA and its member schools are moving with urgency to squelch reform efforts that would ensure athletes could fully profit off their name, image and likeness, as well as get a fair share of the billions in revenue they generate. We need to seek a new, better deal for college athletes.

In the short term, the NCAA could simply waive the restrictions that disallow athletes from getting outside sources of income. In the middle of a pandemic during which some of these athletes' families have no income, this would be the compassionate step for the NCAA to take. In the long run, our debate should be framed by a question of what real fairness for college athletes would look like.

In professional leagues such as the NBA, athletes often get about half of league revenues in compensation. Instead of the 12% of revenues college athletes get, what if it was 30% or more? Those revenues could support further education and extended health care coverage, among other things that provide lifelong benefits to athletes, instead of inflating coaches' salaries and funding unnecessarily lavish facilities. The NCAA has the opportunity to be a partner in the process of creating equity for athletes, or it can continue to dig its heels in against reforms.

We don't have to wait to make college sports better. We have an opportunity to make change right now. When college sports return, we need things to be different. The athletes deserve far better, because they've earned it.

Chris Murphy is a United States senator representing Connecticut. Draymond Green is a three-time NBA champion and power forward for the Golden State Warriors, as well as a former national player of the year at Michigan State University.