The White House just hosted a panel of six former college football players to talk about NCAA student athletes’ issues. The President even attended the event for an hour.
Laudable, perhaps, but why in the world would the White House think former football players can speak for all student athletes, especially the nearly 88,000 women who play Division I sports?
Football players make up only 16% of all of Division I’s more than 188,000 student athletes.
College Football Makes The Money
When Front Office Sports posted about a “roundtable on college athlete rights” on X (formerly Twitter), a number of posters questioned the absence of women from the group. Others were quick to point out the roundtable was for football players.
Of course, many people seem to equate college sports with football and justify football’s dominance because it earns most of the generated revenue through ticket sales, NCAA conference distributions, donors, concessions, advertising, royalties, sports camps, and media rights. In fact, about 45% of generated revenue in the Power 5 schools comes from broadcasts and bowl games.
Equating football with college sports has already created trouble for precisely this reason. Recent conference realignment destroyed the Pac-12 as all schools except for Oregon State and Washington State universities left the century-old conference in pursuit of more lucrative media contracts.
While conference realignment may work well for football, it is a devastating move for many of the sports played by the other student athletes in the Big 10, Big 12, and ACC. Teams that play mid-week and more often than once a week will be forced to travel across the country and across three time zones regularly. Many students who chose Pac-12 schools to play close to home will no longer be able to have family and friends come as often to watch them play. Historic rivalry matches will no longer take place. The domination of Pac-12 women’s basketball is no more. Who knows what will happen to OSU and WSU who are now fighting to retain control of the conference’s money.
Football out earns all the other sports combined and often pays the bill for a good bit of the rest of the athletics program. That doesn’t mean football always carries its own weight. Programs often go into the red over stadium upgrades, expensive score boards, additional administrative positions, and exorbitant coaches’ salaries.
Pre-pandemic, only 25 college athletic programs actually made a profit. In most Power 5 institutions, support for athletics also comes from a wide variety of other sources. In fact, 13% of Power 5 college sports dollars come from institutional and government support. Another 2% comes from fees that all students pay, regardless of whether they ever step foot in a sports venue or even care about sports.
College Football Is Not The Only Sport
Eighty-four percent of DI college athletes play a sport other than football. While these student athletes work no less hard than their peers in football, their sports (other than a few men’s basketball teams) are not revenue-generating. Does that mean they are not of value? Or does the White House really think football players can speak for all of these incredibly diverse sports from water polo to track and field to golf?
If one of the goals of the roundtable, as suggested by the White House was to talk about injury in college sports, a panel made up only of former football players missed the mark.
While football players do have the highest injury rate of college athletes, concussions are a problem for both women and men in college sports like soccer, lacrosse, wrestling, and basketball. Women student athletes are 33% more likely to sustain an injury than their male counterparts. Women and minoritized student athletes also report greater mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety than their white male peers.
The White House also proposed discussion of the ongoing debate about compensating student athletes. Why, then, talk to former players when so much has changed in just the past few years? In particular, the issue of Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) has revolutionized the ability of some student athletes to monetize their athletic participation, even as it has exacerbated inequalities among student athletes. Additionally, the transfer portal has created a new way for student athletes to leverage their abilities and desires, including the possibilities of greater visibility and monetary reward. This is not the NCAA of even three years ago.
Football Is A Surrogate For Men and Masculinity
While the X naysayers may explain that the exclusion of women was not purposeful because the meeting was just for football players, football (with the rare exception of a couple of women who have been kickers) players are men. So, by inviting only football players to talk about injury and compensation, the White House invited only men to speak for all athletes.
Football stands in for masculinity and male dominance. Football represents the pinnacle of masculinity in dominant American culture, and men can identify with the male dominance of these most elite and masculine men, even if they themselves are not football players.
To put it in more familiar terms, most people have heard some version of this comment in response to a strong, powerful, elite, athletic woman: “Well, she’ll never play football in the NFL.” Of course, most men will never play football in the NFL either, but that doesn’t stop them from identifying with the men who can over against all women, who can’t.
So when the White House invites former football players to speak for all athletes, they reinforce not only the dominance of football over all other sports but also the dominance of men over women. After all, do we imagine the White House would ever invite six former elite gymnasts to speak for football players?
These players, no doubt, had their own valuable experiences and perspectives to bring to the table, but theirs is a very small slice of college athletics.
So, for example, did these former football players bring up Title IX compliance as an issue of fairness for women student athletes? Did it occur to them to talk about how NIL can make women targets for sexist comments, trolling, and threats of gender-based violence? Did they bring up women’s risk for injury? Did they talk about the fewer opportunities for women student athletes to go pro or the lower wages most of them will receive than their male counterparts?
Despite all the advances of women athletes over the past few decades, sports is still a male domain, and even men within it are arranged in a hierarchy of masculinity with football at the top. That’s why it’s not all that surprising that the White House would assume football players could speak for all student athletes. Women’s issues never even show up on the radar.
Certainly, former football players may have had important perspectives to share with the White House, but they did not speak for student athletes, especially the nearly 47% of DI student athletes who are women.