The NCAA faced a moment of reckoning this spring when Oregon women’s basketball player Sedona Prince shared a video showing that, although there was ample space for a weight room at the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, the NCAA had only given the women a tiny fraction of the equipment it had provided the men. That unequal treatment isn’t new: Athletes in women’s college sports have consistently received less investment and support from the NCAA than their counterparts in men’s sports. But this year, athletes and coaches in women’s basketball, softball, women’s volleyball and women’s golf spoke out about it — and the world was clearly listening.
The NCAA was forced to apologize and improve the weight room at the women’s tournament, and it eventually hired an independent firm to conduct an equity review of its championship events. “When we start talking about these things and when student athletes speak up about it, that’s how change happens,” Prince told “Good Morning America” in April. “And you can see when we all spoke up about it and used our voices, there was change. … We started, like, a movement for sure.”
Importantly, that movement is expanding beyond student-athletes and others who are directly involved in college sports. According to a new survey by the organization College Pulse,1 college students are overwhelmingly saying that enough is enough when it comes to gender equity and name, image and likeness rights in college sports.
Just 17 percent of college students “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed that the NCAA treats men’s and women’s sports equally. That opinion was relatively consistent regardless of the students’ gender, as 22 percent of male students, 15 percent of female students and 4 percent of nonbinary students believed that the NCAA’s treatment is equal.2
“They don’t do enough to promote women’s sports and sporting events in addition to lack of coverage of women’s events in general,” a student from Colorado College wrote in the survey. “Female athletes have worse equipment to prepare for their games,” added a student at Kenyon College.
Another student from the University of Hawaii at Manoa theorized that the disparity is a result of the NCAA’s focus on profit: “They would provide equal opportunities to all if they saw the athletes as humans and not just simply players,” the student wrote.
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While students excoriated the NCAA for its inequities, nearly half (46 percent) said their own schools treated men’s and women’s sports equally. That difference is larger for male students: 57 percent said that their schools treat men’s and women’s sports equally, compared with just 39 percent of female students and 37 percent of nonbinary students.
It is curious that college students are singling out the NCAA as the villain, as a 2017 report from the NCAA showed that the median Division I member school spent 42 percent of its total expenses on men’s sports and 21 percent on women’s sports. (The remaining 36 percent was spent on “unallocated and coed sports.”) At least two-thirds of the median school’s expenditures related to recruiting and coach compensation also went to men’s sports. So if spending is a signal of schools’ priorities, the inequities extend far beyond NCAA headquarters.
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However, many college students likely have limited knowledge of the NCAA or college sports in general, and a viral video of an inadequate weight room may attract their attention in ways that more subtle gender discrimination might not. Their responses may also reflect a feeling of pride in their school, similar to how Americans have consistently rated their local K-12 schools, and especially their own children’s schools, much more highly than the country’s schools overall over the past 30 years.
As college students recognize the NCAA’s role in perpetuating gender inequity, they are also saying that the slice of the pie that student-athletes of all genders get is not big enough. Eighty-one percent of students in the College Pulse survey said the NCAA takes advantage of student-athletes, and their reasoning often boiled down to money.
“They [the NCAA] make billions of dollars each year while athletes, who tend to be browner and poorer than the student body, make either nothing at all or a few thousand dollars in scholarship incentives,” wrote a student at Grinnell College. “Many do not graduate because of the time commitments from their sports, and the physical toll on their bodies is immense with no further support if they do get injured. I would say all of that is unethical in the extreme.”
Whether the responses were broken down by gender, race or political leaning, students overwhelmingly sided against the NCAA. For example, Black or African American (86 percent), Hispanic or Latino (86 percent) and multiracial students (92 percent) were especially likely to think that the NCAA takes advantage of student-athletes, while 80 percent of white students also agreed.
“Student athletes have so many restrictions placed on them, and schools/NCAA make [an] insane amount of money off of them, without those students seeing that money,” wrote a University of Louisville student. “And let’s be real, student athletes are set up to fail after college most of the time.”
One way to begin to balance the financial scales between schools, the NCAA and student-athletes is to allow student-athletes to profit off of their names, images and likenesses (NIL), just like musicians, social media influencers and even cheerleaders have been able to do while in college. NCAA rules had prohibited student-athletes from being paid to appear in commercials, sell merchandise associated with their name or likeness, or even charge for summer camps or lessons. But in the past two years, state after state passed legislation to cement students’ NIL rights, and late last month, the NCAA’s board of directors finally voted to suspend amateurism rules and allow college athletes across the country to monetize their NIL rights.3
Just a few days before the NCAA acquiesced, the U.S. Supreme Court had unanimously ruled against the organization in a related case, finding that the NCAA could not restrict education-related payments from schools to student-athletes. In his concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote, “Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate.”
College students largely concur with Kavanaugh: In the College Pulse survey, large majorities of college students were in favor of allowing student-athletes to be paid a salary (67 percent), receive education-related payments (75 percent), be paid to endorse products on social media (88 percent), profit off of their likeness (89 percent) and be paid to appear in ads (93 percent).
|OPTION ALLOWING…||Favor or strongly favor||Oppose or strongly oppose|
|Universities to pay athletes a salary||67%||32%|
|Athletes to profit off of their likeness||89||12|
|Athletes to profit by endorsing products on social media||88||11|
|Athletes to profit by appearing in ads||93||8|
|Athletes to receive education-related payments||75||24|
This change can also be viewed through a gender equity lens, as female athletes often have their greatest earning power while in college and may particularly benefit from NIL. During the Elite Eight of the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments this March, eight of the 10 remaining players with the most social media followers were women, and the athlete marketing platform Opendorse estimated that those women could earn anywhere from $30,000 to nearly $1 million annually if they were allowed to capitalize on their NIL rights. Right after the rule change, Fresno State women’s basketball players Haley and Hanna Cavinder signed an endorsement deal with Boost Mobile and appeared on a billboard in Times Square, while Nebraska women’s volleyball player Lexi Sun started a clothing line with the volleyball apparel company REN Athletics.
It’s no coincidence that the NCAA’s retreat on NIL comes as student-athletes like Prince are increasingly speaking up on these and related issues. But it is also significant that student-athletes are not alone among their generation. Instead, college students of all stripes are part of a tidal wave of public opinion that is largely anti-NCAA and pro-athlete rights — and contributing to a flood of new policies reshaping college athletics.