Business Yet Unfinished: The Battle for — and Backlash from — Collegiate Sports Revenue Sharing

On the night of January 8, 2024, the Michigan Wolverines football team attained the crowning glory of their undefeated season: the College Football Playoff National Championship. In the now-immortal words of star running back (and offensive MVP of the game) Blake Corum, “business [was] finished.”

Yet for now-former head coach Jim Harbaugh, even more important business is just getting started. In addition to finally winning the Super Bowl that has eluded him, Harbaugh is on a mission to bring justice to the business that is NCAA football.

It is undeniable that NCAA football is a business: The combined Power Five conferences brought in $3.3 billion in total revenue during the 2022 fiscal year, including $845.6 million for the Big Ten and $58.8 million for the University of Michigan. Coaching contracts are regularly for tens of millions of dollars, and TV contracts have reached into the billions this decade.

Yet the athletes who are out on the field or in the practice room running, throwing, lifting, and blocking until their muscles melt nearly every single day do not share — in fact, are forbidden by NCAA policy from sharing — in the fruits of their labor. It is only since the National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Alston (2021) Supreme Court decision that college athletes are allowed to profit from their university’s use of their name, image, and likeness (NIL).

Despite the NCAA’s protests of amateurism, Justice Brett Kavanaugh correctly pointed out

Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate. . . . The NCAA is not above the law.

The Alston decision was woefully incomplete, as it failed to address financial benefits unrelated to the athletes’ education, so time will tell how long the NCAA remains above the laws of politics or economics. But the clock is ticking, as it is certainly not above the criticism of its most recent national championship–winning coach.

Several figures in college football have advocated revenue sharing by players, but none as vocally as Harbaugh. He has been a voice for student-athletes since at least 2020, using his platform to call “for a system that is fair, equitable and benefits all involved [without excluding] the student-athletes from the profits.”

In a press conference immediately after the national championship, Harbaugh again spoke out even more strongly for players’ right to reap the financial rewards of their own blood, sweat, and tears:

There’s no voice for the student-athletes right now, and it just needs to change. That’s a wrong that needs to be righted. . . . Anybody that’s profiting off the student-athletes, me included . . . the NCAA, conference commissioner, Big Ten office, all the conferences could take 5 to 10 percent less of what they’re getting.

Facing a threat like this, it is no wonder that the NCAA has cracked down on Harbaugh to the point of helping chase him out of the college game. Yes, he did technically commit a recruiting violation by paying for restaurant meals for two recruits, on top of prohibited in-person activities during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is possible that he had some suspicions (or at least was not as vigilant as he should have been) about now-former staffer Connor Stalions’s actions in arranging for his friends to record opposing teams’ signals in prior games, and there should be some penalty for it if that is the case.

Yet in the grand scheme of things, neither “Burgergate” nor “Signgate” is a real threat to the integrity of the sport. The Wolverines showed as much by winning their biggest regular-season games and then the College Football Playoff after Stalions had already been exposed and fired and their opponents had the opportunity to change up their signs if they had been scouted. NCAA President Charlie Baker even said that Michigan’s championship was won “fair and square.”

But Jim Harbaugh, as a champion coach and virtuous man, is apparently a threat to the corporate greed that permeates collegiate athletics, from the schools to the conferences to the NCAA head offices. For that transgression, there have been rumblings of a show-cause penalty should he return to the Wolverines, on top of the additional “Harbaugh-proof” whole-week suspensions that would almost certainly be levied under the NCAA’s new “personal accountability” rules beyond the six game-day suspensions he has already served.

He may well have departed for the Los Angeles Chargers or some other NFL team anyway in pursuit of his lifelong dream of a Lombardi Trophy, but the threat to him and the Wolverines from the ongoing NCAA prosecutions certainly didn’t help. As it is, it remains to be seen how the new head coach, Sherrone Moore, and those others who stayed will be affected.

Punishment by proxy for Harbaugh, as well as legitimate sanctions for other coaches and staffers involved in either or both of the scandals, is still on the table, given the NCAA’s track record of harsh punishments whenever the real violation at hand is a threat to its financial dominance. One such case was a bowl ban, vacated season, and five-year show-cause penalty for head coach Jim Tressel of Michigan’s own greatest rival, the Ohio State Buckeyes, for essentially allowing players to be compensated for their memorabilia before it was legal.

But the more the corporate fat cats — athletic directors, conferences, TV networks, and of course, the NCAA itself — tighten their grip on their opponents, the more revenue will slip through their fingers. The new era of NIL and free transfers is a start, but the battle for putting the financial fruits of athletic labor into the hands of the athletes is still underway.

As with Moore taking over for the departing Harbaugh on the field, a new generation of players, coaches, and allies will have to arise and continue this fight. They will have to put aside rivalries and recognize the common adversary in their midst unjustly withholding funds from the players of Auburn and Alabama, Oregon and Washington, Ohio State and Michigan alike. But revival around the football field is only a start in the pursuit of justice in collegiate athletics. Let the contest begin.

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About Erin Neely

Erin Neely, a staff writer for the Michigan Review, is a first-year graduate student pursuing a PhD in applied physics. Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, she completed her undergraduate degree at Emory University and her master’s degree at Fisk University, both in physics. Erin also represents the Rackham Graduate School in Central Student Government and has been involved in the American Revival Foundation and the American Solidarity Party.