Widgets Magazine


Stanford Athletics and the profitability of amateurism

With the start of another Stanford football season underway, the Stanford community — students, faculty, staff, administrators and alumni — should take a long look at the NCAA monolith our school finds itself a member of and ask: Is this lawful? Is this fair? Is this right?

As a member of the NCAA, Stanford ascribes to and enforces the principles of amateurism, which dictate that athletes must not be compensated above the level of their cost to attend school. To be sure, having one’s educational expenses fully covered, provided the education is legitimate, is incredibly valuable. Fortunately for Stanford football players, educational quality and achievement are not problematic issues: Over 95 percent of Cardinal football players graduate with degrees across a wide variety of majors. And if they’re not pursuing their dreams in the NFL, they’re launching successful careers in finance, tech and other sectors. In the overwhelming majority of cases, it appears that Stanford has followed through on its commitment to provide its football athletes — the school’s most visible — with a meaningful education. The same cannot be said for many other collegiate athletic programs, and Stanford rightfully stands as a beacon of a successful combination of athletic and academic pursuits.

But in addition to being among the most well-known athletes on campus, Stanford’s football players are also the most lucrative. And that’s where the issue of compensation becomes significantly more complex.

In the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2016, the Stanford football program generated revenues of $43,744,639, according to disclosures provided to the Department of Education. The team’s expenses were $23.7 million, meaning that each of the program’s 85 scholarship football players generated $235,532.14 in profit for the athletics department. Stanford’s Office of Financial Aid calculated the school’s 2017-18 full cost of attendance to be $69,109, meaning that scholarship Cardinal players receive, in in-kind (non-cash) benefits, less than 29 percent of what they generate for the University. For young men who risk their long-term health to act, essentially, as marketers for the University, there is little room to categorize this exchange as fair. Going simply off the tens of millions their efforts generate for the school, Stanford football players have earned far more than just a free education.

Recently, college athletes have been fighting fiercely for economic and employment rights. Current and former players have filed a number of class action lawsuits challenging the legal validity of the NCAA amateurism regulations, many of which have played out in Bay Area courtrooms. The well-known O’Bannon v. NCAA case challenged the NCAA’s rules respecting payments to players for the use of their names, images and likenesses in EA video games (the players won). In 2013, Northwestern’s football players moved to unionize, an effort vehemently opposed by the school and ultimately defeated by the National Labor Relations Board (though the question of whether or not college athletes are employees is yet to be settled). The latest legal challenge to the NCAA is an antitrust suit that cuts right to the heart of the Association’s notion of amateurism. If that suit were to prevail, it could have significant impacts on the type and amount of compensation collegiate athletes could receive while playing for the schools.

Unfortunately, Stanford has opposed these efforts at every turn. Director of Athletics Bernard Muir testified on behalf of the NCAA at the O’Bannon trial, arguing — without evidence — that paying some athletes and not others would sow discord. Muir also testified in front of a congressional committee regarding the Northwestern players’ unionization push, remarking that Stanford might relegate itself to Division III if college athletes were deemed employees — a hollow bluff considering how lucrative Stanford’s Pac-12 membership is.

Clearly, Stanford Athletics wants to maintain the status quo in college sports. That status quo limits athletes to only receiving a full cost of attendance scholarship in an industry that generated well over $10 billion in 2015-16. Hopefully, we can all agree this state of affairs is neither fair nor moral, and that soon the courts will recognize the conduct of Stanford and the NCAA to be unlawful.

So, enjoy Cardinal football in 2017, but don’t lose sight of the overall industry it operates in — or Stanford’s complicity in it.

— Cameron Miller ’16


Contact Cameron Miller at ccmiller94 ‘at’ alumni.stanford.edu.

  • Man with Axe

    You wrote: “…Cardinal players receive, in in-kind (non-cash) benefits, less than 29 percent of what they generate for the University.”

    Consider what anyone who works for any employer earns as a percentage of what his before-tax contribution is to the enterprise. An attorney who is paid $150,000 per year but bills out 2,000 hours at $300 per hour is only being paid 25% of his contribution to the law firm.

  • Cardinal fan

    So, should all of the athletes of non-profitable sports at Stanford pay the school to be on their teams? The athletic budget, funded in-part by football (and sometimes basketball), pays for of the costs of most of the other (men and women) sports. Since Stanford is a not-for-profit, if there are additional funds left over they have to be spent on other university expenses. I’m personally glad that Stanford uses any football “profit” to support many other important aspects of student life, and doesn’t use it to line the pockets of athletes who happen to play a more popular and profitable sport.

  • GSB Aluminator

    The same argument could be made for internships. Or business in general. I see College ball as a means to get an education. Sure, the powerhouse (be they Regional or National) teams make money on their football programs but so does Google or any other organization. The difference is any excess money goes to improving the entire athletic program or into the endowment (that’s another whole topic and more relevant if you ask me….) not to the EBIT.

    The coaching and training they get by being a part of the organization is invaluable and keeping it “amateur” keeps it honest. I see Coach Shaw as someone who is out there to teach these amazing athletes how to win in life as well as on the field. Don’t change a thing. These guys play their guts out hoping to be noticed by the NFL and that is part of the allure of College ball.