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College Athletes Often Go Hungry. Sanders and Murphy Want to Fix That.

College athletes rake in billions of dollars for their schools while having little to no say over their conditions.

Wake Forest Demon Deacon players join hands prior to the game against the Liberty Flames at Truist Field on September 1, 2012, in Winston Salem, North Carolina.

Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) introduced a bill Thursday to grant college athletes the right to collectively bargain and organize.

The College Athlete Right to Organize Act, which was also introduced in the House by Representatives Jamaal Bowman (D-New York), Andy Levin (D-Michigan) and Lori Trahan (D-Massachusetts), could help shift the balance of power between college athletes, who are unpaid, and the often wealthy coaches and administrators who virtually control their careers.

“College athletes are workers. They deserve pay, a union, and to own their own name, image, and likeness,” Sanders said in a statement. “We cannot wait for the [National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)] to share its billions with the workers who create it.”

College sports make up a multibillion dollar industry — and big games can even be a boon to the local economy as well — but the athletes who power it see very little of those benefits.

The bill asserts that college athletes are employees since they generate revenue for the college in exchange for benefits like scholarships which they can lose if they quit the team. The bill proposes to amend the National Labor Relations Act so that these athletes are classified as employees, which would allow them to collectively bargain. It would prohibit agreements that waive the students’ right to collective bargaining.

The bill would also direct the National Labor Relations Board to recognize colleges within a sports conference as a bargaining unit so that athletes can work together within their conference at large.

College athletes for years have spoken out about the struggles of working unpaid in sports. In a video produced by More Perfect Union, Senator Murphy shared the story of Shabazz Napier, a former NCAA athlete at University of Connecticut.

“There’s hungry nights where I’m not able to eat, but I still gotta play up to my capabilities,” Napier once said in an interview during his time in college. “There are hungry nights where I go to bed, and I’m starving.”

Murphy points out that Napier helped make coaches and administrators “filthy rich” — but still didn’t have food to eat. “It’s really disturbing,” said Murphy.

The Connecticut lawmaker said Napier’s story is common among college athletes. A 2020 report from The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice that found that nearly a quarter of athletes at Division I schools were food insecure at some point over the past year, and nearly 14 percent of them had experienced homelessness in the same time.

The problem is made worse by the fact that college athletes can’t work any other jobs or accept outside aid. The report includes the story of Silas Nacita, a former running back at Baylor University, who was disqualified from the NCAA after accepting housing from a friend because, as he said, his other choice was homelessness.

“The NCAA has long denied its players economic and bargaining rights while treating them like commodities,” said Murphy in a statement. “Having the right to [collectively bargain] will help athletes get the pay and protections they deserve and forces the NCAA to treat them as equals rather than second-class citizens.”

Many coaches in NCAA sports make millions of dollars in salaries while exercising huge control over their athletes. The athletes, meanwhile, have very little power or say in their conditions.

“We are at the mercy of our respective schools, they get to set the rules and treat us however they want and the worst consequence is some bad press, but the machine keeps on going,” one Pac-12 football player told The Guardian. “The power dynamics between player and coaches/schools is so off balance, guys were scared to speak up and advocate for themselves in the middle of a pandemic. The NCAA has shown they don’t give a fuck about us, it’s all about protecting the bottom line and making money.”

Murphy also points out that the issue is one of civil rights. Black athletes make up a large portion of Division I athletes, especially in the most profitable sports for the colleges.

“In sports like football and basketball, which generate the highest profits, the athletes who can’t join together and negotiate are almost overwhelmingly young Black men and women,” Murphy said, “while the executives and coaches who are allowed to collude in order to rake in those huge profits are largely white. This is a huge injustice.”

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