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The Big 10 conference signed a historic deal, but the athletes aren't getting paid


There is a lot of money to be made from college sports. Just ask the Big 10 Conference. Last month, it announced an exclusive broadcast deal reportedly worth more than $7 billion. But as NPR's Andrew Limbong reports, none of it will be going directly into the players' pockets.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: At a training camp press conference, Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud was asked by a reporter if a cut of the Big 10 broadcast deal should be going to the athletes.


CJ STROUD: I mean, I don't - I'll probably have to think about that a little more. But just off rip, I would say yes.

LIMBONG: He goes on to give a more diplomatic answer, saying that, yeah, his tuition is covered and he's grateful for that. But...


STROUD: Me personally, my mom has always taught me to know my worth.

LIMBONG: Jason Stahl is the head of the College Football Players Association - or CFBPA.

JASON STAHL: They're not even pretending anymore. It's about money. It's about creating the biggest deal you possibly can so you can get a lot of good press in the sports and entertainment industry.

LIMBONG: The CFPBA isn't a union but more like an advocacy and organizing group that's argued that athletes playing in this upper tier of college football should get a cut of the revenue. NPR reached out to the Big 10 for a response, but they didn't get back to us in time. Stahl says that in the past, the Big 10 would have argued that everything they do is in the service of educating the student athlete. But now with this deal and, over the summer, adding two California schools to the conference, that pretense is gone.

STAHL: Because the idea that a college athlete getting on a cross-continental flight to play a game is somehow in service of an academic agenda is, obviously, absurd.

LIMBONG: There's been one recent change that's allowed college athletes access to a source of income. About a year ago, after a Supreme Court ruling, the NCAA changed their rules to allow student athletes to monetize off their name, image and likeness. This means now college athletes are allowed to get endorsement deals and do commercials. But that's third-party money, not money coming from the team, school or conference system.

STAHL: I think that the money that they're making for the universities definitely outweigh the price of that college tuition.

LIMBONG: Jordan Meachum is on the leadership committee of the CFBPA. He's also a former college football player himself, mostly playing at Sacred Heart University before moving to South Dakota State University. And he says that for him, getting paid would have meant that he didn't have to stress out about regular expenses - food, rent, books.

JORDAN MEACHUM: If I would have been able to receive some sort of compensation or some kind of help, I would have not focused on the other things as much and put more focus into academics and football and so on.

LIMBONG: Victoria Jackson is a sports historian at Arizona State University. She says, historically, we as a culture understood the athletic scholarship as a fair trade for their efforts. But now...

VICTORIA JACKSON: These athletes play for schools that are bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars, conferences that are bringing in now billions of dollars and an NCAA system, in total, that's bringing in close to $20 billion annually.

LIMBONG: Football and basketball take up a lot of the conversation around college sports because they bring in the money, money that's used to subsidize other sports, which introduces a racial dynamic to this, says Jackson, considering the top tier players in NCAA football and basketball are majority Black.

JACKSON: And the athletes who are being subsidized are often the privileged kids who play water polo or rowing or tennis or golf and are less likely to be in need of having a scholarship experience as the reason they get to go to college.

LIMBONG: She says she'd like to see the conferences righting this. But it might, again, come upon the Supreme Court to do something about it.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.