This year’s college football season is shaping up to be vastly different than any other in history. While games are being played, crowds are exceptionally limited or nonexistent. Furthermore, there are simply fewer games—and there is no guarantee of a complete season for any school. The combination of these factors is costing universities tens of millions of dollars and upending the underlying business model of college sports. Universities across the country have already responded by ending many low-revenue sports. This has led to widespread lamentations about the decreased opportunities for intercollegiate athletes who play sports that cannot support themselves financially.
However, if we are serious about caring for intercollegiate athletes, we should begin by reconsidering the corrupt bargain at the heart of modern college sports—one that has been magnified by the pandemic. In a new National Bureau of Economic Research paper that we co-authored with Jordan Keener and Nicole Ozminkowski, we empirically investigate the economic business model of college sports. We find that the prevailing model rests on taking the money generated by athletes who are more likely to be Black and come from low-income neighborhoods and transferring it to sports played by athletes who are more likely to be white and from higher-income neighborhoods. The money is also transferred to coaches and used for the construction of lavish (and perhaps overly lavish) athletic facilities. With COVID-19 shutting off the money spigot, schools are being forced to publicly acknowledge that their athletic departments depend on regressively transferring money from athletes who grew up poor to those who grew up in richer households and to wealthy coaches.