Keyontae Johnson’s Collapse on the Basketball Court Highlights Economic Injustice for College Athletes

Keyontae Johnson’s Collapse on the Basketball Court Highlights Economic Injustice for College Athletes

2021-01-13 18:05:50

When Keyontae Johnson, a 21-year-old basketball player, agreed to play NCAA basketball at the University of Florida, he had no idea of ​​the trauma he would experience. Keyontae contracted COVID-19 in August and after passing physical screenings, he collapsed while playing basketball. He was then diagnosed with a rare heart disease that would affect him for the rest of his life. He was also placed in a medically induced coma while doctors fought to save his life. Fortunately for Keyontae, he was able to recover and is back on the sidelines at the University of Florida while managing his heart condition. Many suspected the heart condition was linked to COVID-19 and were concerned about NCAA athletes contracting the virus while exercising.

A major concern for Keyontae and many others is the NCAA's inability to provide long-term medical care to athletes who have been seriously injured and / or contracted COVID-19 while playing NCAA sports. The huge revenue generated by the NCAA and its failure to provide long-term health care benefits demonstrates the economic injustice that exists for NCAA athletes.

The NCAA annually generates $ 867.5 million in championship television and marketing rights and $ 177.9 million in ticket sales. The NCAA spends more than $ 100 million dollars on legal services, communications, business insurance, and general and administrative expenses, but doesn't require a single cent towards future health care or medical costs for athletes experiencing brain damage, including CTE (a degenerative brain condition that is common occurs in athletes who have had concussions), sustain serious injury, or sustain COVID-19 while playing NCAA-organized sports. The NCAA's only policy covers catastrophic injuries and the bills for some of those injuries while the athletes participate in NCAA-organized sports, and not after graduation. Many athletes also lose their scholarship if they suffer these serious injuries and some have no financial means to complete their studies.

This problem is exacerbated when it becomes clear that the athletes who generate this income, often to the detriment of themselves, are often black athletes from poor backgrounds. The National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed the revenues of 65 athletic divisions of the NCAA & # 39; s most revenue-generating programs, Division I men's basketball and soccer. Nearly 60% of the athletes in these income-generating sports programs are black athletes from impoverished neighborhoods. The uncompensated labor of these athletes, many of whom do not have a financial safety net from their families, is funded by the NCAA.

Keisha Williams

The NCAA's blatant refusal to pay future medical expenses for injuries sustained while playing NCAA sports is compounded by the dismal rate for NCAA athletes to engage in professional sports. For example, 1.2% of men who play NCAA basketball and 0.8% of women who play NCAA basketball enter the NBA and WNBA, respectively. The remaining 98.8% of these young men and 99.2% of these young women have to balance their medical costs and long-term health care without the financial resources that some assume would be available to them as professional athletes.

The NCAA has a lot of work to do to remedy the injustice of its business, where only 13% of male coaches and 14% of female coaches are a minority. The same system where some coaches earn more than $ 9 million a year and the athletes – and unpaid workers – have historically lived below the federal poverty line. A system where many of these athletes leave college with medical debts, student loans and no prospect of professional sports. In fact, only 1% of college athletes receive full scholarships and the remaining 99% often graduate with significant student loans.

As society continues to expose social injustices and make calls for action, sport remains at the forefront of these discussions. For example, on December 20, 2020, Worth Rises, an advocacy group seeking to eradicate privatization and exploitation in the prison industry, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for Tom Gores, the owner of the NBAs. Detroit Pistons, to sell his franchise for his personal and professional involvement in the exploitation of prisoners.

In particular, Tom Gores is the CEO and founder of Platinum Equity, a telecommunications company that has systematically exploited prisoners and their families. Platinum Equity made $ 700 million annually by sacrificing poor, black and brown families by charging exorbitant prices for making phone calls. An example Worth Rises gives is that Platinum Equity charges inmates and their families as much as $ 15 for a 15-minute call. Worth Rises' call to action is intended to force the NBA and its owners to require Tom Gores to sell the Detroit Pistons franchise to an owner who will value and honor the NBA's social justice obligations.

This is all happening in the same NBA that has pledged $ 300 million to empower the black community. The NBA and NBA Players Association also founded the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition. The coalition is designed to promote equality and social justice.

If advocacy groups shed light on the hypocrisy of organizations that publicly claim to fight for social justice while institutionalizing injustice themselves, how does the NCAA fall into this discussion?

The NCAA claims to be an advocate of social justice and activism for its athletes. The NCAA has even set up a virtual training program to teach athletes how to use their platform to drive meaningful change. The NCAA, like the NBA, must now look at its own institution and how its actions are contributing to change the injustices in society that it claims to help athletes.

For NCAA players, social justice means that the multi-billion dollar corporation will cover the long-term health insurance costs against serious injuries, COVID-19 contraction, and other consequences of playing NCAA sports. It means creating a revenue sharing system where no athlete will be below the federal poverty level and where athletes have a share of NCAA revenue. I suggest that at least 10% of the NCAA's annual earnings be set aside for all athletes, regardless of gender, sport, or school. An athlete-only committee will have the opportunity to vote each year on how that money can best be used to serve the needs of athletes.

Much of what college athletes can and cannot do is beyond their control. Student athletes often spend more than 40 hours a week on games and exercise, leaving little to no time for work or life outside of sports. Currently, the NCAA is administered through committees composed primarily of college and university presidents and athletics directors. For example, the NCAA Division I Student Athlete Experience Committee is made up of 12 people. But only two student athletes. What is the reason student athletes are a substantial minority on the committee designed to discuss their experience?

If the NCAA really wants to measure and improve the student-athlete experience, students' desires for greater diversity in coaching, and address their issues with poverty, then students must have a say in their NCAA experience and a share of the revenue control – that they themselves generate – to empower their ideas for meaningful change, including those related to healthcare and revenue sharing.

Keisha Williams is a union labor lawyer, an adjunct law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.


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