The Downside of a Deregulated College Sports World

The latest victory for college student athletes comes at the cost of elevating bad economic theories espoused by the American right.

Kimberly Joyner
5 min readJul 22, 2021

The public consensus is clear — college student athletes should be able to make money using their name, image, and likeness (NIL) while participating in NCAA sports. Much like the fight over Obamacare and same-sex marriage, the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in NCAA vs. Alston aligns with attitudes that had been shifting against the status quo for years.

But the era of NIL has come to represent so much more than a shift in attitudes around student athletes getting paid. It is also the ascension of economic attitudes typically promoted by the American right — namely, deregulation and the rights of individuals in the free market outweighing concerns over abuse, fairness, and parity within capitalist structures.

Mark Emmert, current president of the NCAA, seemed resigned to the NCAAs’s uncertain future in the NIL era, telling reporters last week that the organization’s regulatory power over student athletes should be the “bare minimum.” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey voiced a similar opinion in his opening remarks at SEC Media Days earlier this week. Sankey claimed the NCAA “can no longer resolve” issues related to player compensation, as the Supreme Court’s ruling effectively branded the organization a monopoly whose regulatory power over players’ compensation must be broken up (hence the variation in NIL rules across states and schools).

In a populist political climate, the bipartisan consensus on NIL and the sudden irrelevance of the NCAA as a governing body makes sense. Ultimately, the NCAA made its own bed by being greedy and refusing to adjust its policies in the wake of changing American attitudes about their relationship to capital. Whether it was the Occupy protests and the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign on the left, or the Tea Party movement and Trump’s rise to power as a demagogue on the right, resentment and alienation from monied elites have been a part of American political life for well over a decade.

In other words, by the 2010s, when the first rumblings of populist fervor in the college sports world could be heard, there was simply no good reason for the NCAA to continue prohibiting student athletes from being paid a portion of the profits their labor generated, or allowing student athletes to make money from jersey sales and third-party endorsements. Moreover, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the structurally racist dynamic of the NCAA’s rules against player compensation was clearer than ever before. Not only do Black student athletes comprise a majority of the highest revenue-generating NCAA sports — football and basketball — the revenue generated from their labor helps pay for programs that are majority white such as softball, lacrosse, and swimming. And yet, until this month, only the players were barred from making a profit from their own labor.

With that said, there are few reasons to think the world of college sports won’t be better off without the big, bloated bureaucracy of the NCAA. And yet I’m uneasy with the ideology from which all of this has advanced — college sports is a marketplace, and in addition to being students and athletes, players are multi-million dollar business owners in need of very little oversight. While schools are primarily tasked with coming up with NIL restrictions, they are also their own enforcers especially if they live in a state without NIL legislation on the books. I’m all for student athletes making their own money; but I’m not ready to cheer on the anti-regulatory ideology that led to Enron or the 2008 housing crisis or the peeling away of net neutrality rules.

This is not to endorse any of the NCAA’s doomsday scenarios that were clearly intended to protect revenue streams rather than ensure parity in college sports (after all, pre-NIL rules didn’t stop my alma mater, the University of Alabama, from consistently posting top 5 recruiting classes and appearing in the national championship game 8 times over the past 11 seasons). But when it comes to racial justice, there is value in parity in college sports — to right old wrongs and to prevent new ones.

Back in 2016, former Vice columnist and editor Patrick Hruby’s made the definitive case for paying student athletes on the grounds that at the time, the only people allowed to profit from the labor of Black players in the highest-grossing college sports were coaches, university officials, and conference commissioners who are largely white. Even the title of Hruby’s article, “Four Years A Student Athlete,” a reference to the famous slave narrative by Solomon Northup, characterized the relationship between the NCAA and Black student athletes as one between overseer and slave. In the years since, however, Hruby’s views have tended to resemble most others in sports media, describing, for instance, the battle for NIL in one tweet as one in which student athletes are recognized as “separate and unequal economic citizens.” In a repost of a 2018 article he wrote, Hruby goes one step further and says there should be no restrictions on NIL earnings of any kind for student athletes.

But indifference to parity just comes across as smug refusal to engage the reality that allowing student athletes to earn unlimited sums of cash could go horribly wrong in all the ways that pitted public opinion against the NCAA. Despite being overrepresented in NCAA sports, it is possible that the biggest beneficiaries of NIL aren’t going to be Black basketball and football players, but young, blond white gymnasts with millions and millions of Instagram followers. Perhaps the uneven success of some players and positions (quarterback or shooting guard) disincentivizes student athletes from agreeing to pool and redistribute their earnings to support less marketable student athletes or enter into group earning contracts at all. Perhaps these self-regulating schools decide the revenue is too great for the rules to matter anymore and ditch them — further ballooning the divide between the richest athletic programs and everyone else.

When it comes to Black student athletes as well as those from other marginalized groups, either justice matters or it doesn’t. And if it does, NIL proponents must be willing to be admit the free market won’t work it all out on its own.



Kimberly Joyner

I write about American politics, current events, and gender/feminism in TV and film. Based in Atlanta, GA. Email: