Staurowsky is a professor of sport management in Goodwin College, with expertise in social justice issues in sport, athlete exploitation and college sport reform.
In the height of the madness this March, four college heavyweights descended on New Orleans for a basketball Mardi Gras.
At the NCAA men’s Final Four in the Big Easy, thousands of fans shelled out big bucks to see the University of Louisville, the University of Kentucky, the University of Kansas, and Ohio State University compete for the national title in the Superdome. The three games were televised by CBS as part of the network’s multibillion dollar rights agreement with the NCAA, and advertisers paid millions to hawk their products on the broadcast, seen in living rooms, dorms and bars around the world.
Yet in the midst of this parade of money, the players—18- to 22-year-old men who actually dribble, rebound and shoot—received no compensation. None at all. Therein lays the problem, says Ellen Staurowsky, professor of sport management in Drexel’s Goodwin College School of Technology and Professional Studies.
Staurowsky is among America’s foremost experts on the problems surrounding big-time collegiate men’s basketball and football, many of which are detailed in “The Price of Poverty in Big Time College Sport,” a jarring report she coauthored with the National College Players Association. It was released in November to much fanfare.
Cinderella might not have made it to this year’s Final Four ball, but Staurowsky believes there’s plenty of fantasy—and hypocrisy—in college athletics.
“There are some mythologies that are in operation within the business that do not always serve the best interests of the athletes involved,” she says. “For years and years and years, we’ve had people saying athletes don’t have anything to complain about because they have a free ride, when in point of fact the creators of that formula well understood that it wasn’t even minimally a free ride.”
As “The Price of Poverty in Big Time College Sport,” vividly explains, there is a gap in the value of a scholarship given to an athlete and the actual cost of attending college. That revelation has caused ripples in athletic departments across the country and has made waves on Capitol Hill, where U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) held a forum on the issue in November.
“The NCAA’s constant mantra is, ‘There’s no way that college athletes will ever be paid,’” Staurowsky says. “I think that’s an unfortunate stance to take from the standpoint that, in my view, it’s a moral dilemma in terms of higher educational entities not affording employee rights simply because they’ve been permitted to exploit workers the way that they have.”
Staurowsky played field hockey, lacrosse, softball and badminton as an undergraduate at Ursinus College. She has worked as a collegiate coach, athletic administrator and professor for more than 30 years, so she has not arrived at her opinions on college sports hastily.
Prior to coming to Drexel, she spent nearly 20 years as a tenured faculty member at Ithaca College, where she taught a graduate-level course in intercollegiate athletics administration. It was through that class that she first collaborated with Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association.
“The Price of Poverty in Big Time College Sport” is the third report the two have released.
“Our original project was this notion of a quote unquote free ride for an athletic scholarship,” she says. “There is misunderstanding among the athletes who receive those scholarships as well as within the general population at large about what a full athletic scholarship actually covers. From the 1950s to the present, the athletic scholarship has included tuition, room, board and books. There is in that calculation a gap between what the full cost of attendance is versus what a full athletic scholarship actually covers.”
The gulf can be crippling to a student from a poor background or even one from a middle-class family.
“Our purpose was to simply explain that to people,” Staurowsky says. “What that entailed was going into the United States Department of Education database to which college and universities report what their tuition costs are each year along with what their expected costs are going to be associated with housing, room and board. Then, we provided an overview showing what the shortfall was between what an athlete would receive versus what the full cost of attendance was at that particular school.”
They found that the average scholarship shortfall (out-of-pocket expenses) for individuals classified as full-scholarship athletes was approximately $3,222 per player during the 2010-11 school year. The room and board provisions in a full scholarship leave 85 percent of players living on campus and 86 percent of players living off campus below the federal poverty line.
“Cost of attendance includes all of those other expenses associated with going to college that do not fall into a specific billable category,” Staurowsky says. “Any of us who has gone to college knows that we need money for transportation, if we want to go out to dinner on a Friday night to hang out with our friends, those kinds of basic expenses.”
Too often, athletes can’t afford them.
“There’s a case now involving an athlete who 20 minutes before the NCAA Tournament was told that he could not compete,” she says.
“Jamar Samuels from Kansas State [was disqualified after] his AAU coach had given him $200 in grocery money just so his family could eat. For an athlete like that who’s coming through the system, it is entirely possible that if they’re coming from a level of poverty that’s so extreme that they literally do not have food on the table, that gap between what the scholarship covers and the full cost of attendance can feel like a mountain.”
Stories like Samuels’ strike a nerve in people, and Staurowsky’s heard from fans, media and athletic administrators following the report’s release. She’s written opinion pieces on the subject for the Atlantic, ESPN.com, and the Huffington Post, and routinely speaks at universities around the country.
“I think there is kind of a mass effect that is growing right now,” she says. “It’s good from the standpoint that people are beginning to really grasp the magnitude of the inequities that exist. That was one of the things we were trying to show with our analysis. You’ve got bowls that have had financial windfalls, you’ve had coaches and the decision makers who have been benefitting from this. It’s the athlete who can’t read, who’s been declared ineligible because they accepted $200 in grocery money, it’s that kind of thing that I think has taken hold with a larger group of Americans who have said it’s just not right.”
What’s An Athlete Worth?
Staurowsky wanted to give people a sense of scale in terms of the value of a football or men’s basketball player in relation to the amount of money generated by those sports.
Using the same revenue-sharing formula employed by the NFL and NBA, the report found the fair market value of the average Football Bowl Subdivision player and Division I basketball player was $121,048 and $265,027, respectively. At the University of Texas, football players’ fair market value was $513,922, but they lived $778 below the federal poverty line and had a $3,624 scholarship shortfall.
Duke basketball players were valued at more than $1 million while living just $732 above the poverty line with a scholarship shortfall of $1,995. The University of Florida had the highest combined football and basketball revenues while its football and basketball players’ scholarships left them living $2,250 below the federal poverty line and with a $3,190 scholarship shortfall.
“There’s a power differential here that is really important to consider,” Staurowsky says. “During the same period of time that the athletic scholarship has remained constant in terms of the formula, coach salaries have risen at a rate of 750 percent during the past 20 years, according to an economist at Duke. You can ask, ‘Why did that happen?’ It’s not surprising that during the same period those coach contracts have become more complicated, we’ve also had a proliferation in the number of agents who are representing coaches in those negotiations.
“If you have a coach whose bonus structure is greater than what the scholarship gap is for an entire football team with 85 full scholarships, that by itself speaks to this level of inequity that really has to be re-examined, especially when you’ve had a system that has intentionally denied the opportunity for athletes to negotiate for themselves. In one hand, we have athletes who are limited in terms of the kind of advice they can get when they’re signing their national letter of intent—and they’re expressly prohibited from having agents. On the other hand, we have coaches whose contracts have been growing and growing, and they get that kind of advice.”
In the last year alone the NCAA has debated adding a $2,000 stipend to scholarships (making them four-year deals instead of renewable one-year agreements), has seen massive conference realignment and has moved closer toward a football playoff.
It all begs the question: what’s next?
“Given the way that the superconferences are going, I don’t think it would be a bad thing for a separation of powers at this point,” Staurowsky says. “I think the superpowers need to go, and when they go, they need to provide for player advocacy in a way that does not exist now. We don’t need to fear what’s going to happen with the rest of the system. I think the rest of the system may be poorer, but what will happen is we will actually have a model of amateur sport.”
In a forthcoming article in the Marquette Law Review, in the media, and in classrooms across America, Staurowsky advocates a fair shake for Division I men’s basketball and football players.
“I think it’s a larger problem than simply saying, ‘Well, make it a free education and that ought to be enough,’” she says. “Freedom ain’t free. It would be one thing if in this calculation we had 100 percent of students graduating, but the plain fact of the matter is that in the revenue-producing sports we have athletes who have been graduating at rates of 48, 50, 56 percent, which means there has not been a delivery on that promise for a very long period of time.
“There need to be advocates who can speak up on behalf of athletes who, right now, are in a very vulnerable situation,” she says. “They risk the potential of either not being played, losing playing time, or potentially losing their scholarship. They don’t have an advocacy group, they don’t have any kind of labor group that will intervene on their behalf. There needs to be a leveling of the playing field in my view in terms of the power structure to give more opportunities for athletes to exert a voice without risking their careers.”