Tenny Palepoi never wanted to receive food stamps. College football left him with no choice. A former University of Utah defensive tackle and married father of two, Palepoi sometimes spent more than 60 hours a week practicing, studying, lifting weights and traveling to away games. His busy schedule forced his wife, Delaney, to give up her job—someone had to watch the kids. Rent and diaper costs ate up the $785 stipend check that came every month as part of Palepoi’s athletic scholarship; despite Utah’s football program bringing in around $30 million in annual revenue, National Collegiate Athletic Association amateurism rules prevented him from earning anything more. No signing autographs for cash. No gifts from boosters. Definitely no salary. And so his family had a choice to make. They could accept federal help aimed at the neediest Americans, low-income mothers and infants. Or they could go hungry.
“A lot of people, when they see college athletes, they see us on the field and all the glory we get,” Palepoi says. “They really don’t see the struggle we go through day to day, trying to find a meal or pay rent and bills. It’s tough, man. It took a shot at my pride to use food stamps. But we had to.”
From lawsuits brought by former athletes to an attempted unionization bid by Northwestern University football players, amateurism in big-time college sports is under siege. On one side of the debate, the NCAA and its member schools insist that no-pay-for-play is a noble American tradition. On the other, critics and reformers call the megabucks collegiate athletic-industrial complex a rights-denying sham that cheats athletes while enriching their corner-office overseers, carrying what Pulitzer Prize–winning civil rights historian Taylor Branch calls “a whiff of the plantation.”
As the fight plays out in federal courtrooms and on ESPN, one thing is clear: Amateurism itself is a moocher. A form of sports welfare. An economic arrangement all of us should care about because all of us end up paying for it.
Drexel University sports management professor Ellen Staurowsky calculates that the average shortfall between scholarship value and the full cost of attending school for major-conference college athletes in the 2011–2012 school year was $3,285. She also found that more than 80 percent of the same athletes fell below the federal poverty line. The hourly wage of Palepoi would have equated to $3.27 an hour, far below the federal definition of poverty.
So how do players make ends meet? Often by turning to taxpayers. No school or federal agency tracks how many players use food stamps, and players themselves are usually too embarrassed to discuss the subject. However, Palepoi says some of his teammates also needed food stamps.
Pell Grants are a larger source of federal subsidy. Court documents from a 2006 case against the NCAA revealed that in a typical year at UCLA, approximately 60 to 70 percent of football players and 30 to 40 percent of men’s basketball players receive the grants, which are awarded to low-income students and have a maximum value of $5,730. During the 2010–2011 school year, The Des Moines Register found that 1,064 football players at 23 schools in the Big Ten, Big 12 and Southeastern conferences received a total of $4.7 million in Pell Grants—about $4,420 per player. Similarly, sportswriter Jon Solomon reported earlier this year that 131 University of Alabama athletes received a total of roughly $566,000 in federal aid, with half that going to football players. And 14 years ago, journalist George Dohrmann won a Pulitzer for his investigative series probing University of Minnesota athletics; his coverage included a story about two football players living in subsidized apartments.
The thing is, football and men’s basketball players in the major conferences don’t have to be poor. They shouldn’t need taxpayer bailouts. After all, popular college sports are flush with television dollars. March Madness earns the NCAA roughly $771 million annually. ESPN will spend approximately $5.64 billion over the next 12 years to broadcast the new college football playoffs. Alabama reportedly made $143 million in athletic department revenue in 2013—more than 25 NBA teams and all 30 NHL clubs made in the same year.
USA Today reports that top football schools pay their athletic directors an average of $515,000 a year and that coaches’ salaries rose 44 percent between 2007 and 2011, surpassing a 23 percent rise in CEO pay over the same period. NCAA president Mark Emmert earns $1.7 million and makes no apologies. Unlike athletes, administrators are not prohibited from making money. The businesspeople atop college sports enjoy a free market; the young men running and sweating and suffering concussions below endure wage suppression, with schools forbidden from making competitive bids for their talents. The result? Just 15 percent of athletic revenue in the major college football conferences goes to players by way of scholarships, according to University of Richmond economist James Monks. By contrast, more than 50 percent of total league revenue in the four major professional sports goes to athletes via salaries. If college athletes received the same percentage of revenue as their unionized pro counterparts, Staurowsky calculates, the average major-conference football player would earn about $114,000; a men’s basketball player would make $266,000.
You know who doesn’t need food stamps, Pell Grants, subsidized housing or a single cent of your money through federal programs intended to help the desperate? People who make six figures. Amateurism turns makers into takers.
Last spring the group Americans for Tax Fairness released a report criticizing Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, for receiving tax breaks and subsidies worth nearly $8 billion annually. Most of that amount, the group said, comes from the company paying its employees so poorly that they require food stamps, Medicaid and other forms of welfare just to survive. College athletes like Palepoi can relate. So could the faculty at the University of Wisconsin, which once passed a resolution insisting that its school drop football, in part because the sport “had become a business supported by levies on the public.” The year of its fed-up demand? 1905. The worst was yet to come.