What is exploitation, exactly? Does it happen any time workers are paid less than their economic contribution to the business that employs them? How much less does it have to be to qualify?

Like clockwork, when the annual NCAA March Madness tournament approaches, the familiar chorus decrying the plight of college athletes gets louder. Given the continuing popularity of the event, it’s not clear anyone’s really listening. But the fact remains: this year’s event will likely break the 2015 record of $1.13 billion in advertising dollars, and every one of the more than 800 players on athletic scholarship will generate far more revenue for their school than they will be paid in the form of their scholarship, room, and board.

Student-athletes are pretty much just athletes

Focusing on college football, Jake Simpson has written in The Atlantic, “Simply put, the players spend more time on football—what the NCAA has said is the ancillary portion of their education—than your neighbors spend at their nine-to-five-jobs.” In other words, having a year-round commitment to the program and spending 40 to 50 hours a week on sports-related activities during the season makes you a de facto employee.

What do these employees receive in return for their labor? While some are provided a high-quality education, many are channeled into “paper classes” that are designed to ensure that they maintain eligibility with little or no academic effort. In terms of healthcare coverage, most schools—outrageously—“have no contractual obligations to treat injuries or strains that result from playing for that college.” A number of high-profile players have recently complained about going to bed hungry.

Yes, there is an unquantifiable joy in competition, and yes, the college experience is not entirely (or even mostly, some would argue) about scholastics. But the fun doesn’t last long. Of the approximately 9,000 college football players nationally, scouts will choose only 310 for the NFL draft pool. Similarly, only three percent of NCAA college basketball players make it to the pros.

Who’s getting paid?

Here’s an interesting exercise: What would these athletes likely be paid if the NCAA lost its amateur status? In professional leagues like the NFL and NBA, around 50 percent of revenue goes to the players; a ratio that many feel is still fundamentally unfair. If that ratio were applied to college athletics, a basketball player at a powerhouse program like the University of North Carolina’s would get around $650,000 a year while those at smaller schools like North Carolina Central University would get about $43,000.

Meanwhile, in the past half-century, college sports have become a multi-billion dollar industry with revenue from television, the use of athletes’ names and likenesses in promotional materials, and ticket and jersey sales going to just about everyone involved except for the athletes who actually create the value.

The “Power Five” conferences (Pac-12, SEC, ACC, Big Ten, and Big 12) are now each bringing in over $250 million a year. The NCAA itself will generate nearly $11 billion over a 14-year TV and web deal to broadcast March Madness, and the College Football Playoff will bring in more than $7 billion from ESPN over a 12-year contract.

Coaches, administrators, and other staff are also bathing in the uninterrupted stream of wealth, even though, incredibly, many big-time athletic departments are losing money. As of 2011, the average salary for a major college football head coach has jumped to an astounding $1.47 million, with a horde of their assistants making hundreds of thousands each. There are now bowl-game directors who make nearly $1 million for administering a single game.

Is collective action an option?

In March 2014, the National Labor Relations Board, while not ruling on the merits of the players’ argument, dismissed a union election petition from Northwestern University football players and declined to rule on whether they were “employees” of the university. The prospective union’s demands were not based on pay-for-play wages, but more modest requests including, “financial coverage for former players with sports-related medical expenses, the creation of an educational trust to help former players graduate and commercial sponsorship compensation.”

The school argued that these student athletes were first and foremost students and that their primary commitment was to education. They also claimed that collective bargaining was not an appropriate method to raise concerns.

Although the Northwestern players never got to vote on whether to unionize, many conferences took the hint and changed from guaranteeing only year-to-year renewable scholarships—at the discretion of the head coach—to four-year scholarships that cover the full cost of attendance.

Another example of using collective bargaining power: this past November, football players at the University of Missouri refused to play, helping force the resignation of the school’s top two administrators after they failed to respond aggressively to several racist incidents on the predominately white campus.

It’s not clear that unionization is necessarily the best way out of this mess. What the Northwestern and Missouri examples show, however, is that even if a small group of college football and basketball players decided to stop playing until their demands were met, administrators would have no choice but to consider offering a better deal.

Image courtesy of espn.com