The NCAA announced last week it would finally allow athletes to receive compensation for their names, images, and likenesses. While NCAA member institutions have historically profited enormously from athletic programs, students — whose time and labor lies at the core of any successful program — haven’t made a cent. Under this new decision, which top officials unanimously agreed on, some student athletes — perhaps five percent of top-tier athletic universities, according to one expert’s estimate — could begin to profit off their effort.
For us, this move is a no-brainer, and a late one at that. Profiting from one’s own image seems to us a basic economic right, and status as a student-athlete does not seem sufficient to deny it. This is especially true given how universities have made such enormous profits from their athletics programs; for example, the Texas Longhorn program at University of Texas at Austin made over $200 million in 2018 alone. Still, we feel it necessary to identify some significant concerns this decision poses, both nationally and at Harvard.
At the national level, the decision’s rollout, insofar as it might seem to address the broad exploitation of student athletes, seems dubious. Will students get a cut of university revenues dependent upon their image? Or will they have to make individual contracts with outside entities and vendors? What institutional support will be provided to students as they navigate this process? And how will the new system be regulated and enforced, particularly across divisions and schools?
It also seems as if only a select minority of student athletes will likely benefit. Cases like that of Zion Williamson, a Duke basketball star who in his single year of college play could have stood to make $2.5 million, are not representative of the situation most student athletes will face. Those who do make anything, mostly hometown stars, could make somewhere in the low five figures. But the reality is that most students, despite their extensive labor, skill, and prowess, don't stand to make much of anything at all.
But what might concern top-tier athletic institutions across the nation doesn’t really apply to Harvard at all. Harvard’s athletic program does not necessarily exploit student labor in the same way it seems to at other schools. But as we’ve opined in the past, the athletics program appears to serve to some extent as a backdoor acceptance path for white, wealthy, and legacy applicants. It should not be surprising then that with few exceptions, like that of the great Jeremy Lin, whose brief streak of brilliance on the New York Knicks in 2012 made him a short-lived but astronomical star, many of Harvard’s homegrown athletic stars have been white men: Bobby Jones, one of the greatest golfers of all time, Ryan Fitzpatrick, a quarterback whose brilliance at Harvard didn’t quite transfer to the NFL, and Matt Birk, a punter who won the NFL Man of the Year award in 2012, just to name a few.
At Harvard, therefore, conceptualizing this new NCAA decision as a move toward social justice is not so simple. The decision is far from a bad one, but the distribution of its potential benefits on our campus will look different than they will at that other Crimson athletic program: the University of Alabama. While we celebrate this historic move on the NCAA’s part, we do so with the awareness that its positive principle may not necessarily correlate to the most democratic effects.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.