On The Issues Associated With Exploitation of Student Athletes

An important voice in the debate about exploitation comes from Professor Harry Edwards. He put it thus:

For decades, student athletes, usually 17-to-19 year-old freshmen, have informally agreed to a contract with the universities they attend:  athletic performance in exchange for an education. The athletes have kept their part of the bargain; the universities have not. Universities and athletic departments have gained huge gate receipts, television revenues, national visibility, donors to university programs, and more as a result of the performances of gifted basketball and football players, of whom a disproportionate number of the most gifted and most exploited have been Black (p. 373).

Edwards, Harry. 1985. “Educating Black athletes.” Pp. 373-384 In D. Chu, J. 0. Segrave & B. J. Becker (Eds.), Sport and higher education. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

We believe that anyone writing about student-athletes and the struggle with the issues  of the exploitation of the Black Student-Athlete at Predominantly White Institutions should take a seat now as this blog is long (Van Rheenen, Derek 2011).

These student-athletes, mostly men, who play basketball and football, the question goes, should they be compensated for their time on the athletic field? 

The first question is what is exploitation of a student athlete?  Many disagree.  

In 2016 the Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott (makes $3.4 million) and Val Ackerman, also white (making about $500, 000) — co-published an editorial on CNN.com.  arguing under a headline reading “College Athletes Are Educated, Not Exploited,” they claimed that 67 percent of all Division I athletes will go on to become college graduates—a slightly higher graduation rate than that of non-athletes—and that campus athletes receive something even more important than a degree: namely, “they’re taught how to be successful in college and in life.” https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/30/opinions/college-athletes-not-exploited-ackerman-scott/index.html?platform=hootsuite 

The authors may have overstated their case.

The second is why is all the work on this topic only concerned about student-athletes who are Black and who only play football and basketball? (See, especially, “Major College Sports: A Modern Apartheid.” Texas Review of Entertainment & Sports Law, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2010 http://bit.ly/1FRACzs)

Third, where is the empirical work that demonstrates “exploitation” of student-athletes be they Black football and basketball student-athletes or white rowers ?

If these mostly Black men are exploited, say at Ohio State then where is the empirical work showing that their white big neck defensive line (DL) teammates are not also exploited playing for Ohio State?

Are the African American student-athletes exploited at HBCU’s like Southern University? Are they exploited at Grambling or at Florida A&M?

This begs the question: What differentiates who is / is not exploited?

Is much of this work on exploitation based on skin color and not intersectional enough to incorporate gender and / or social class (Komanduri, Murty, Julian Roebuck, Jimmy McCamey (2014)?

Several people have gotten some notice in op-ed pieces on the topic but these are mostly first person “me” accounts and can’t be generalizable nor are they based on any empirical evidence (Napier 2014).

To be clear, our perspective on the issue of exploitation is wide because it includes all young men and women who toil as athletes at their respective colleges and universities. Additionally, if we have to limit our work on those student-athletes who have been awarded full scholarships, then we state that the issue is both moral and economic.  That is, the exploitation of student-athletes is within the context of the money and other benefits that come to both the university and the athletic department and at many of the Power Five institutions, the spin-off alumni associations where many are now privatized so that they may skirt the rules of the NCAA (Smith 2014).

For example in May 2020 (in the middle of the COVID-19 Pandemic) many institutions are paying out bonuses to coaches and athletic directors rewarding them for the fall 2019 sport season.

At Arizona State, for example, Athletic Director Ray Anderson and head football coach Herm Edwards are cashing in:

Amid financial difficulties related to the coronavirus pandemic, there are some aspects of college sports business proceeding as usual. One involves the bonuses that some schools contractually owe coaches and athletics directors based on academic performance figures the NCAA announced this week.  Arizona State athletics director Ray Anderson stands to collect more than $575,000, making this at least the fourth consecutive year in which Sun Devil athletes’ collective classroom success has brought him more than $300,000.  Sun Devils football coach Herm Edwards is set to receive $350,000 based on his team’s result in the annually published NCAA Academic Progress Rate (APR) metric.

The context is the revenue and profits institutions receive from fielding athletic teams. (We have not forgotten the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).  Within the context of this argument we also concern ourselves of the salaries and bonuses that come to the coaches, the university, the athletic department and associated unitsThe moral-economic perspective looks at these salaries, profits, spending against the scholarships given to athletes whether full, partial etc.Are these student-athletes exploited when you place them up against the money and bonuses the athletic director makes; when placed against the millions paid to coaches, and even losing coaches; when placed against the bonuses that come for winning the conference championship; the national championship, meeting goals of the APR?

That is, you can’t compare the scholarship (which varies by sport) against the aforementioned. (We have not forgotten the scholarship shortfall).So, if the argument is that Black student-athletes are exploited at Ohio State in football and basketball, and the evidence is that the coach is paid a LOT of money, what about the white athlete from the same university or at another of the Power Five Universities that now control college sports ?   Is he not exploited because he is white, or because his coach doesn’t make a lot of money, or because his tuition costs more, and therefore he’s getting compensated at a more fair rate for his labor? What about the athlete who gets a college education paid for, graduates without any student loans, but never plays a single down or minute of the sport he/she came to college to play?  Should he / she pay the university back because their  labor didn’t contribute to the winning of the team? Or, can we estimate the value of their  labor to the success of the team through the way they prepare  and practice?

Clemson just won the national championship. (Several times in the last five years)  Whose labor was more exploited? If every athlete gets the same “pay” or reward for their labor, college tuition, housing, a meal plan, books, and cost of attendance, then in order to gauge the level of exploitation we would have to gauge the value of the contributed labor.  Can we say that Clemson’s Christian Wilkins’ and Travis Etienne’s Jr., who are both Black, labor is more valuable to the outcome of the game (Clemson beat Alabama in the National Championship football game by a score of 44 to 16) than, say, Trevor Lawrence, the quarterback, who is white?

When people talk about exploitation of Black student athletes, they often talk about the profit associated with bowl games.  The athletes play for “free” while the coaches earn bonuses, universities receive profit sharing revenue, etc. Perhaps examining other professions is useful here. Let’s take medical doctors, for example.  As residents, they do the lion’s share of the work in health care, working long hours, and often if not always for very little pay. This is an apprenticeship. If they work hard and have talent, they may catch the eye of the director of the most prestigious clinics and hospitals and ultimately may exit the period of internship or residency, able to secure elite jobs and exorbitant salaries.  

The same can be said of graduate students who do the bulk of the teaching, for almost no pay, but labor at high ranking institutions of higher education (often the same ones where athletes labor) and exit with the hopes of garnering assistant professorships at elite universities and commanding (relatively speaking), lucrative salaries.  They teach for a fraction of the “cost” of full professors, while often generating significantly more FTE or “profit” for the university. Thus, the football player who labors on a team playing for the national championship has the opportunity to audition for the NBA or the NFL for “free.”

To assume that athletes are the only “workers” whose labor is exploited is short sighted.

The concept of exploitation, carefully developed by Karl Marx, and refined by other economists and sociologists, can be and must be empirically tested if it is to be invoked.  

Exploitation is based on the market value of labor, the market value of commodities produced, and profits. Would Trevor Lawrence’s labor have been less exploited if the cost of Clemson tuition were higher, or more exploited if it were lower, or if he were an in-state student?  If Trevor Lawrence could sell his labor to Harvard, where tuition is high and the value of the degree is astronomical, would his labor be less exploited if he transferred there instead of remaining at Clemson?

I urge my colleagues to be very careful when using this language of exploitation.  And, I also challenge my colleagues who are interested in this concept to do the difficult work of developing operational measures for each of the components of the theory of exploitation.

I will add here that I was not won over by the LeBron James documentary entitled “Student Athlete.”

It never went far enough and this may be the outcome because James never went to college?

I think another angle that is not touched on in puff pieces about the exploitation of Black Student-Athletes, is the fact that in recent comparisons of this supposed exploitation and the college admission scandal.

This scandal centers on elite private universities that do not, in fact, have a history of exploiting Black athletes.  In fact, at the 8 schools identified in the scandal, there are few if any “one and dones” and there are very small racial gaps in graduation rates among athletes.  Why?  Because essential to the maintenance of the elite status at these schools is a high graduation rate.  

Athletes are admitted with lower SAT and ACT scores, and then they have access to unlimited tutoring as well as some of the very best educators (professors) in higher education who support these athletes in learning the material and earning, after 4 or 5 years, a prestigious college degree that only a tiny percentage of Americans ever have the opportunity to earn. I know because I spent a significant part of my career at one of these elite institutions.

Though we can have a healthy debate about the exploitation of Black athletes, it’s simply not the case at these 8 institutions.  Not only do their Black athletes graduate at very high rates, but their football programs lose money. The real story is that these rich white kids and their families took seats away from other high achieving, possibly low-income students, many of whom very well might be Black or brown by exploiting the back door that was created by athletics and taking advantage of the pay inequities in intercollegiate athletics.

To close. 

As long as there is a monetary gap between the money given over to ALL student athletes, regardless of –race, class and gender–between what they get and what they owe then these young women and men are being exploited.

Professor Richard Southall, University of South Carolina, puts out an annual report that shows the scholarship shortfall.  Here is what we learn:

the average estimated scholarship shortfall was $2,763 per year.  Projected out over a four year period, a student on a full scholarship would bear a debt of $11,050.  Over a five year period of time, that debt would rise to $13,813…. The data revealed that NCAA scholarship limitations can leave a full scholarship athlete with expenses ranging from as low as $200 up to $6,000 per year depending on the institution. 

In 2019 the NCAA had over $1 billion in annual revenue.!


Comeaux, E, Harrison, KC . 2011. “A conceptual model of academic success for student-athletes.” Educational Researcher 40: 235–245.

Edwards, Harry. 1985. “Educating Black athletes.” Pp. 373-384 In D. Chu, J. 0. Segrave & B. J. Becker (Eds.), Sport and higher education. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Komanduri S. Murty, Julian B. Roebuck, Jimmy D. McCamey. 2014. “Race and Class Exploitation: A Study of Black Male Student Athletes (BSAS) on WhiteCampuses.” Race, Gender & Class, 21, No. 3/4, 156-173.

Napier, Shabazz: 2014. “There’s hungry nights where I’m not able to eat.” In Rodger Sherman SB Nation, April 7th 


“NBA PLAYERS LESS LIKELY TO COME FROM POOR BACKGROUNDS, STUDY SAYS” https://www.blackenterprise.com/nba-players-less-likely-come-poor-backgrounds-study/ 

Sellers, Robert. 2000. “African American student athletes: Opportunity or exploitation?” Pp. 135-154 In: Brooks, D, Althouse, R (eds) Racism in College Athletics: The African American Athlete’s Experience. 2nd ed. Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.

Singer, John. 2019. Race, Sports, and Education: Improving Opportunities and Outcomes for Black Male College Athletes. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Smith, Earl. 2014. Race, Sport and The American Dream. NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Van Rheenen, Derek. 2011. “Exploitation in the American Academy: College Athletes and Self-perceptions of Value.” The International Journal of Sport & Society 2(4): 11–26.

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