How student athletes use March Madness to demand pay, equal rights
In a video that's been watched nearly 17.5 million times, a college basketball player showed the stark difference between the variety of machines, barbells and weight racks in the men's room and the lone rack of 10 dumbbells in the women's roomat the respective NCAA tournaments.
"if you aren't upset about this problem, then you're a part of it," she said, launching the issue into the general public's consciousness.
Resources and attention for men's sports have long eclipsed women's sports, a reality that has calcified into the culture of college and professional sports. As a result of the mounting outcries from athletes and fans, the NCAA provided more equipment for the women's weight room and said it would conduct an independent equity review.
Social media has become a major platform for student athletes to expose problems when their colleges fail to respond, especially during a popular event like March Madness where tens of millions of people are paying attention. During the historic tournament in Central Indiana, students used the spotlight to highlight issues from fair compensation to equitable resources to allowing trans athletes in sports.
"All these issues have been around, it's just they're getting so much more exposure," said Victoria Jackson, a sports historian at Arizona State University.
Public opinion has been shifting to support college athletes in the past decade as students organize and advocate for change and reporting exposes problems in college sports, she said.
Gone are the days when the dominant narrative is college athletes are "spoiled."
Where did the #notncaaproperty come from?
On the first day of the tournament, some players rallied around #NotNCAAProperty, a hashtag rife with meaning. Players wanted to make money off of their names and likeness, but it was also about the deeper decades-long dispute over who gets the profits for an industry flush with cash and opportunities.
"The NCAA OWNS my name image and likeness, Geo Baker, a member of the Rutgers men's basketball team, tweeted. "Someone on music scholarship can profit from an album. Someone on academic scholarship can have a tutor service. For ppl who say “an athletic scholarship is enough.” Anything less than equal rights is never enough. I am #NotNCAAProperty."
The fight over name and likeness began more than a decade ago when a basketball player saw a video game figure that looked like himself, said David Berri, a sports economist at Southern Utah University.
Ed O'Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player, sued the NCAA along with other players to get paid for the use of their name and likeness, which can be anything from a character in a video game to a T-shirt.
The issue did not get resolved in that case.
"The scope of that is quite large," Berri said.
There are a few ways for athletes to win these fights: through pressuring the NCAA to change, legal challenges and also changes in law. For example, California lawmakers made it easier for student athletes to make money off of their name and likeness by 2023.
In particular, players involved with the movement asked for four things in a statement:
- “NCAA rules to allow us representation (and) pay for use of our name, image (and) likeness by July 1st”
- “A meeting (with) NCAA president Mark Emmert”
- “Meetings (with) state (and) federal lawmakers to pass laws to give us physical, academic (and) financial protections”
- “The U.S. Supreme Court to rule in favor of plaintiffs in Alston v. NCAA (and) not to give the NCAA any power to deny us equal freedoms”
Are athletes students or workers?
At the heart of the fight over the profits of athletes' name and likeness is the question of whether student athletes are professional workers or amateurs.
"The definition of the word amateur is nonsensical," Berri said. "An amateur is somebody we don't pay."
The word as it means in sports originated from the 19th century when sports were primarily played by the rich who wanted to exclude everyone else by making it unpaid, he said.
"Poor people couldn't play sports, they had jobs," he said.
Legal challenges go back to as early as the 1950s, when the wife of a college athlete sued for workman's compensation when he died from a sports injury.
To fight the case, the NCAA began using the term "student athletes" to differentiate them from professional athletes.
The question also came up when Northwestern University's football team tried to unionize in 2014. To argue that they were essentially workers, the players revealed that they spend 40 to 50 hours per week on football.
In 2015, the National Labor Relations Board did not take up the players' petition to unionize, a decision that was seen as a victory for college sports administrators.
What the Supreme Court ruling could mean
One of the disputes between the NCAA and college athletes rose through to the highest court in the United States. As the tournament whittled down to the Final Four, Supreme Court justices were hearing arguments for a case a student athlete filed against the NCAA for capping compensation.
The Supreme Court justices last week had significant questions about the NCAA's athlete-compensation limits, but also showed concerns that challenging those limits could dismantle college sports' current structure.
So while students want to be paid for the value they bring, colleges want to keep a barrier between student sports and professional sports.
The case specifically is about compensation for education-related matters, said Jackson. However, if the ruling is in favor of the students, that's a signal that other court cases involving pay for student athletes may be promising for students.
If that happens, the money would move around and students would be paid more and coaches and other administrators may be paid less, Berri said. But he doesn't believe fans will see a significant change in the game.
The case got appealed to the Supreme Court after lower courts ruled that the association's compensation limit violated antitrust law and should be eliminated.
During the oral argument, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said: "It does seem … schools are conspiring with competitors — agreeing with competitors, let's say that — to pay no salaries for the workers who are making the school billions of dollars on the theory that consumers want the schools to pay their workers nothing. And that just seems entirely circular and even somewhat disturbing."
However, Chief Justice John Roberts said the lower court's' decision could lead to erosion of any limits of athletes' compensation.
“It's like a game of Jenga,” Roberts said. “You've got this nice solid block that protects the sort of product the schools want to provide. And you pull out one log and then another and everything's fine and another and another. And all of a sudden the whole thing comes crashing down. So what's your answer to that way of looking at it?”
A ruling is expected later this spring or in early summer.
Students asking NCAA to take a stance on trans issues
About a week before the NCAA Tournament began, more than 500 student athletes sent a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert and NCAA Board of Governors calling for the association to refuse to host championships in states with laws barring trans athletes from competition.
"You have been silent in the face of hateful legislation in states that are slated to host championships, even though those states are close to passing anti-transgender legislation," the letter states.
The issue of allow trans athletes to compete have been bubbling for some time. The same activists who fought for bills prohibiting trans people from using the bathrooms they want to use are now pivoting to barring trans athletes from competition, Jackson said.
That's not new to NCAA, which threatened to leave Indiana to pressure then Gov. Mike Pence to roll back a bill that would allow businesses to deny service to gay people.
"It's easier to take a hard stance when it's not related to sports," Jackson said.
Contact IndyStar reporter Binghui Huang at 317-385-1595 or Bhuang@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter @Binghuihuang