As a former college athlete himself, NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can speak from experience when he says that something is wrong with the NCAA. Today, the Laker legend did just that, tearing down the collegiate overseer in a well-reasoned piece published via Jacobin.
Detailing his own career as a UCLA Bruin, Abdul-Jabbar talks about how he "felt exploited and dissatisfied" by the student-athlete system, going on to discuss the numerous injustices and burdens weighed against college athletes. He places a particular focus on how easy it is for them to lose their academic scholarships due to injury, and the unfairness of scholarship athletes being unable to "make money on the side". Essentially, Abdul-Jabbar is framing the relationship between student-athletes and the NCAA as being outrageously one-sided.
To close, Abdul-Jabbar draws out a parallel between student-athletes and those once exploited in sweatshops by multi-billion dollar companies like Hanes, Walmart, JC Penny, and Puma:
The children sometimes were forced to work nineteen to twenty-hour shifts, slapped and beaten if they took too long in the bathroom, and paid pennies for their efforts. According to the report, “The workers say that if they could earn just thirty-six cents an hour, they could climb out of misery and into poverty, where they could live with a modicum of decency.”
Thirty-six cents an hour.
While such horrific and despicable conditions are rarer in the United States, we still have to be vigilant against all forms of exploitation so that by condoning one form, we don’t implicitly condone others. Which is why, in the name of fairness, we must bring an end to the indentured servitude of college athletes and start paying them what they are worth.
The August decision by a federal judge to issue an injunction against NCAA rules that ban athletes from earning money from the use of their names and likenesses in video games, also included television broadcasts. This in itself could do much to bring about the end of NCAA tyranny.
It's scathing, to say the least. And, undoubtedly, Abdul-Jabbar has a point. While athletic directors, head coaches, university presidents, and NCAA officials rake in salaries which can pay them millions of dollars, many athletes are forced to scrape together cash by less legitimate means. We can criticize Jameis Winston and Todd Gurley and Johnny Manziel all we want for (allegedly) selling their autographs, but we also need to take a hard look at the circumstances which forced them to that end. Abdul-Jabbar goes so far as to sympathize with an athlete who may have cheated for the sake of gaining a quick buck.
"I never personally encountered any players who cheated or shaved points," he writes, "but I could see why some resorted to illegally working an extra job or accepting monetary gifts in order to get by."
As we all know, something needs to be done about the NCAA. When a former player is saying that he can understand why a player would compromise the integrity of the game for the sake of cash, then there's clearly a desperation present that we're not connecting with enough. At the end of the day, student-athletes, like the rest of us, gotta eat.