A definition for “leverage” is a “positional advantage; power to act effectively.”  There is an exploited segment of our society which unknowingly possesses an incredible amount of leverage, if it ever organizes and demands its piece of the proverbial pie.  That group consists of the collegiate student-athletes in division one sports.  If collegiate student athletes, football and basketball players in particular, fully comprehended both the exploitation and leverage inherent in their position, the landscape of college sports could be dramatically and instantly reshaped.  The fallout would ripple through academia, the entertainment industry, and professional sports.

Division one athletics is a billion dollar industry.  According to ESPN, in 2008, the top forty college athletic programs generated $3.1 billion in revenue, including ticket sales, donations, media rights, and branding.  When you expand the calculation and include all division one schools, the revenue was in excess of $5.6 billion.  When considering these figures, keep in mind that they are five years old and do not include recently renegotiated television deals and the proliferation of conference specific television networks, as well as the pending implementation of a college football playoff system.

An analysis of the athletes’ share of that revenue is staggering.  Time magazine’s blog published an infograph on the gap between what athletes receive and what, in theory, they should receive.  The calculations assume that the athletes, the working class of the industry, should receive 50% of revenue.  The infograph then allows you to enter a specific division one school and view the shortfall in the student athletes’ share of the revenue.  At Penn State, the shortfall per athlete on the football team is $335,258 per year.  At Texas, the shortfall is $546,832 per football player per year.  Even at Temple, which has a lower national profile athletically, the shortfall is $131,388 per year per member of the basketball team.

Almost all of that money is going to somewhere other than to the player on the field.  The athlete is placing his (or her) body in jeopardy and doing so while the institutions pocketing all of the financial benefits provide no long-term insurance or protection.  Further complicating the matter is the tome of NCAA restrictions on the athletes’ ability to personally share in the money making machine, supposedly written to promote amateurism.  While the school can profit from the sale of an athlete’s jersey, personalized signature, or participation in promotional materials, the student can do no such thing.  The athlete is limited to a scholarship.

While a scholarship is tremendous and should not be undervalued in any way, it also should not be overvalued.  The issue is not whether a student athlete should receive a scholarship; it is whether a scholarship is enough.  The student athlete should be entitled to more.  Imagine if the Penn State football player had the cumulative four year shortfall of $1.34 million available after graduation to fund graduate or professional school, create a start-up company or non-profit service organization, allow for a year or two of service in Africa, help care for a sick family member, and/or buy a home.

How could the athletes create the leverage needed to protect their futures?  Simple, all they need to do is to refuse to take the field.  Imagine what would happen if right before this year’s National Championship game the players on both teams refused to take the field.  The players would instantly have the attention of the executives at ESPN, the NCAA, the sponsors, the conferences, and the universities.  Without the players, the billion dollar machine stops.  So when you turn on the television this Saturday night for the game of the week, stop and consider where the money goes.  Stop and wonder what would happen if the players organized.  Stop and imagine what an athlete could do with both an education and significant funding to support post-academic pursuits.  Both the motivation and leverage for change quickly becomes obvious.