In 2016, the Seventh Circuit affirmed what a number of courts before them had repeatedly asserted in past: student athletes are not employees and what they do is not “work” within the legal framework of the Fair Labor Standards Act. According to the Seventh Circuit, the student athletes in question—two former women’s track & field team members at the University of Pennsylvania—“cannot  allege that the activities they pursued as student athletes qualify as ‘work,’ further “ Student participation in collegiate athletics is entirely voluntary. Moreover, the long tradition of amateurism in college sports, by definition, shows that student athletes—like all amateur athletes—participate in their sports for reasons wholly unrelated to immediate compensation.” Student athletics, the Seventh Circuit declared, are not work but rather “play.”
The Seventh Circuit’s attitude is dismissive and reductive but it is not new. In 2015, the Ninth Circuit argued “that not paying student-athletes is precisely what makes them amateurs.” O’Bannon v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, 802 F.3d 1049 (9th Cir. 2015). In 1984, the United States Supreme Court wrote in National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma that in order for the NCAA to preserve the character and quality of the “product” (collegiate athletics) “athletes must not be paid.”
And that’s that; student athletes are not to be paid because they are amateurs, despite the fact that the NCAA reports over a billion dollars in revenue. (1) Despite the fact that the top 11 most valuable college football programs had over 100 million dollars in revenue. (2) Despite the fact the D1 football players have 15-16 hour days, a third of which is dedicated to athletics. (3) Despite all this, what college athletes do is not work but rather “play.”
I am not here to make a passionate defense of the importance of college athletics. I think collegiate athletics are not necessary to any mission of providing an education to students and there is much to be said about the relationship between athletics, toxic masculinity, and violence. Rather, I think it is necessary to examine the redefining of “work” and “labor” in order to justify exploitation under capitalism.
Marx explains profit in Value, Price, and Profit: The value of a commodity is determined by the total quantity of labour contained in it. But part of that quantity of labour is realized in a value for which and equivalent has been paid in the form of wages; part of it is realized in a value for which NO equivalent has been paid. Part of the labour contained in the commodity is paid labour; part is unpaid labour. By selling, therefore, the commodity at its value, that is, as the crystallization of the total quantity of labour bestowed upon it, the capitalist must necessarily sell it at a profit. He sells not only what has cost him an equivalent, but he sells also what has cost him nothing, although it has cost his workman labour. The cost of the commodity to the capitalist and its real cost are different things.
The worker is paid for their labor-power but the labor-power is given in advance of wages—this is the worker offering an interest-free credit loan to the capitalist. In return, the capitalist pays the worker their wages and then sells the commodity for its worth. But the commodity's value does not match the labour hours put into it by the worker but the total quantity of labor contained in it. This difference between the the real cost and the market cost of the commodity is the profit for the capitalist. Profit, therefore, inherently depends on the exploitation of the worker. For college athletics, if the athlete is not a worker then the capitalist owes no wages to the athlete, but still the capitalist profits. The capitalist profits off ticket sales, merchandise licensing, merchandise and so on. If there is no worker, then there is not labor-power cost, and there is only profit.
While working on this piece I was directed toward an article written by University of Iowa MFA student, Katie Prout. Prout writes about her experience shopping at the local food bank and going hungry while a graduate student at the “most prestigious MFA in America.” Prout quotes from an email sent by the director of her program; the director writes:
So while making a little extra money to pay bills and just have a more comfortable cushion is certainly attractive, I promise from the center of my heart that these three years that you’re spending in Iowa are precious. Indeed, they are far more valuable than any amount of money that a part-time job will offer. Embrace this time....it is in fact more valuable than money. (4)
The director’s language reminded me of the language and arguments asserted by university administrators during various graduate student unionization efforts. In an open letter to the university community, Pennsylvania State University President Eric Barron wrote:
We view our graduate students as students first and foremost. They are our mentees, future scholars and, potentially, our future colleagues. Penn State does not oppose the concept of unions or the unionization of employees. However, the University’s relationship with our students is fundamentally different from that of an employer and employee. (5)
The director of Prout’s program, University administrators, and the NCAA, and large swaths of the public have redefined work. It’s not work if you’re an “amateur,” it’s not work if you’re doing what you’re passionate about, it’s not work if the time you’re spending here is “precious,” or you’re part of a privileged few that has been deemed worthy enough to participate in a system that teaches you, trains you, educates you, exploits you. So long as you love what you do, you’re not working and you’ll never work a day in your life. Relegating labor to passion or amateurship and redefining labor out of existence not only devalues the work one does but dissuades any potential for class action and solidarity. As Miya Tokumitsu writes: “Why should workers assemble and assert their class interests if there’s no such thing as work?” (6)
Graduate students and college athletes are the victims of the rapidly commercialized and corporatization of the university system, but the redefinition of labor out of existence goes beyond the campus. The gig-economy repaints Uber and Lyft drivers not as those on the margins making less than four dollars an hour but as people making a little extra money to afford their dream vacations; this isn’t work but a side hustle not needed to pay bills or afford something to eat. (7). The cultural conversation around fast food, retail, and other minimum wage workers demands that we don’t see these employees as people working but instead as simple teenagers working an after-school gig to pay for gas money—all despite the fact that a vast majority of low-wage workers are 25 years or older. (8).
Redefining work means circumventing the traditional profit system. If you’re not working then the profit system is skewed. Your labor-power does not necessarily need to be compensated and you should be happy when it is. If your labor-power is not erased and relabeled as play, then it is devalued and the gap between actual labor-power value and commodity value increases so that the capitalist nets higher profits while the worker is more exploited than ever.
But the redefinition of labor can work both ways. Graduate student unions are succeeding and people do believe that student athletes should be paid. (9) There must be a shift in conversations about what work is and what a worker is. There must be a necessary pushback to the forces that try to erase labor and define it out of existence. We must acknowledge and respect the work and the worker, and this means letting our definitions of work evolve alongside reality.
Eben Novy-Williams. “NCAA Revenue Surpasses $1 Billion Milestone.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 7 Mar. 2018, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-03-07/ncaa-revenue-surpasses-1-billion-milestone-as-scrutiny-mounts.
Smith, Chris. “College Football's Most Valuable Teams: Texas A&M Jumps To No. 1.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 25 Sept. 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/chrissmith/2018/09/11/college-footballs-most-valuable-teams/#acc0e8e6c647.
Mantick, Kelly. “A Day in the Life of a Division 1 Football Player.” NCSA. https://www.ncsasports.org/blog/2017/10/03/day-life-division-football-player/
Prout, Katie. “Going Hungry at the Most Prestigious MFA in America.” Literary Hub. https://lithub.com/going-hungry-at-the-most-prestigious-mfa-in-america/
“Penn State’s valued relationship with its graduate students.” Penn State News, 3 April 2017, https://news.psu.edu/story/459848/2017/04/03/penn-states-valued-relationship-its-graduate-students
Tokumitsu, Miya. “In the Name of Love.” Jacobin, 1 Jan 2014, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/01/in-the-name-of-love/
Lomas, Natasha. “MIT study shows how much driving for Uber or Lyft sucks.” TechCrunch, Feb 2018, https://techcrunch.com/2018/03/02/mit-study-shows-how-much-driving-for-uber-or-lyft-sucks/
“Characteristics of Minium Wage Workers, 2017.” Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 2018, https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/minimum-wage/2017/home.htm
“Should college athletes be paid?” The Washington Post, 19 Oct. 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/page/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2017/09/14/National-Politics/Polling/release_488.xml?uuid=skzgUJlcEeevamVVyq643A