An Amateur Sport No Longer: College Football’s Transformation in the New Media Age

(Image: ESPN)

What’s going on?

Today, football often remains the only consistently profitable sport in a university’s athletic department (Kirshner, 2020) through the now omnipresence of massive revenue sharing media rights deals. The sport has always had a place in American society since its inception, but not always for the right reasons. Athletic departments and coaching staffs haphazardly skate around NCAA regulation, violate regulations to entice recruits, and systematically exploit unpaid labor for profit. With burgeoning new media rights deals and changes to the definition of a student-athlete, the way the sport functions has been irrevocably changed.

Millions watch players play, but the players don’t get paid.

Part of the reason high-level college football teams are so profitable is the brokering of broadcasting rights deals. Division I college football conferences receive tens of millions of dollars each year in payouts from television giants, like ESPN, CBS, and FOX (On3, 2021). While student-athletes are compensated with free tuition, room and board, and enhanced facilities, they essentially work a full-time job after school each day. These players are the product for a mass media empire, but receive no monetary compensation.

Football’s violent nature leads to fleeting and fragile careers.

Not only has college football always had the problem of student-athletes’ labor exploitation, another problem has been the violence inherent to the sport. Rules changes were necessitated by United States president Teddy Roosevelt to reduce the number of players dying on the field (Klein, 2019). While player safety has come far since then, severe injuries with short and long-lasting effects are common. Players risk their health for a profitable enterprise, only to remain unpaid.

Players are taking collective action.

These factors have led to a change in the status quo. Players have begun to make their voices heard and take collective action to bargain for their rights. A potential player union at Northwestern University was shot down in 2015 (Nocera & Strauss, 2016), but a new sport-wide initiative launched in 2021 with a similar model to the players’ associations of North American professional leagues (Nolan, 2021).

The US government is getting involved.

In addition to player activism, the United States government has begun to intervene. Last year, name, image, and likeness rights were finally granted to players after years of conflict. Before, players were punished for offering their autographs for money, partnering with companies for advertisements, and were not allowed to appear in college football video games. The US Senate pushed the NCAA to allow these things for student-athletes through legislation just before this past season began (JD Supra, 2021).

How will this all move forward?

It is clear that with the reluctance of the NCAA to adapt to the rapidly shifting college football labor and media landscape, the battlefield is set on the floor of the Capitol through the related committees within. The present definition of the student-athlete will not stand for much longer. College football presents inherent dangers, and while it is extremely profitable at the highest level, the players do not receive a real cut. As a result, we have already seen changes to a longstanding system through unionization and changes in federal legislation.

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