Until last week, I hadn't thought how much fast food and college sports have in common. That's when I saw the Burger King March Madness ad blitz and learned that BK boasted the "official burger of the NCAA." The real shocker was the company's TV commercial featuring a former college hoops star who was once sanctioned by the NCAA for illegally accepting money from a booster. Then I saw that the Home of the Whopper, where adults with families to feed work for $8-9 an hour, had assembled a whopping 30-person social media team to spread the news of its flame-broiled burger. You can bet that BK pays those tweet-writers more than the minimum wage workers on the bottom of the food chain.
As a former NCAA college athlete, I would never bad-mouth college athletes. They're not the ones causing this problem. They're the 18-22-year-olds balancing a schedule of practices and games in between classes and tests. What gets under my skin is the creeping sense that college students are being exploited so that NCAA executives, TV studios and college coaches can make their bloated salaries. In that sense, college athletes are akin to another group of exploited workers: fast food employees. Here are four similarities.
1) Cash trickles up, not down
Both the NCAA and fast food chains reap healthy profits. Burger King's CEO pulls in $6.5 million a year. McDonald's, which has seen a 135 percent profit increase between 2007 and 2011, earned $5.5 billion in 2012 and paid its CEO $13.8 million. Meanwhile, NCAA President Mark Emmert makes $1.7 million annually. College coaches see a lot of coin, too: Mike Krzyzewski ($7.2 million annual salary), Bill Self ($4.7 million) and Rick Pitino ($4 million) are among the 36 NCAA college basketball coaches who make more than $1 million a year. This amateur sports organization brings in NBA-level moolah.
2) Low-wage labor
The NCAA and fast food corporations rely on cheap labor. A McDonald's employee earning the median wage ($8.90 per hour) would have to work four months straight, including overtime, to earn what its CEO makes in 60 minutes. It's a paltry income that flies in the face of the idea of "living wage," making it hard for fast food employees to afford the items on their menu, let alone support a family.
The NCAA is just as exploitative. College athletes are only "paid" in the form of free or reduced tuition -- at least until they get hurt, when their scholarship could be jeopardized. It's a trade-off best illustrated in the March Madness broadcasting deals that earn the NCAA $771 million annually. Revenues from all college sports combined surpass $11 billion, which is more than that of the NBA, a professional league that doesn't have an educational mission. The only people not seeing a penny are the student athletes.
3) No seat at the table
Fast food workers and college athletes are trying to organize. In December, thousands of fast food workers organized a national walk-out in 100 American cities to call for an increase in minimum wage and a right to unionize. McDonald's currently faces seven class-action lawsuits across three states, standing accused of "wage theft" -- including claims that employees were forced to work off the clock or through breaks without pay.
The NCAA and student-athletes are facing off in courtrooms over labor issues, too. Members of the Northwestern football team are seeking to form a labor union, an unprecedented move that would give student-athletes negotiating power over issues like health care and compensation. On Wednesday the team "cleared the first major hurdle" in the unionization process when the National Labor Relations Board determined the young men were "employees" -- not "student-athletes," as the NCAA maintains. A vote with the National Labor Relations Board might be on the horizon.
4) A "civil rights" issue
Dr. Harry Edwards, a sociology professor and author, remarked that the debate about paying college athletes is "the civil rights movement in sports of our time." He's referring to fact that minorities, especially African-Americans and Latinos, are disproportionately represented in major NCAA Division 1 sports (football, basketball). These minority groups also suffer from poverty at higher rates. The Nation's sports writer Dave Zirin put it this way: "The population of the United States that is most desperate for an escape out of poverty is the population that has gotten the rawest possible deal from the NCAA."
Minimum wage fast food jobs reflect socioeconomic realities, too. African-Americans represent about 17 percent of the fast food workforce, versus 13 percent of the overall population. Meanwhile, the national unemployment rate for African-Americans remains twice that of white Americans, and household median wealth of white families is reportedly 20 times higher than for black families. Leading economists agree that raising minimum wages would reduce poverty, but so far the big national fast food corporations haven't budged.
The fast food industry and the NCAA are quintessentially American institutions. Maybe it makes sense for Burger King and the NCAA to partner on TV commercials this March Madness. But it's wrong that college athletes and fast food workers are forced to play the serfs in a feudal system that only rewards the overlords.
When I was a college athlete, my image was never in a video game and my name was never on a college t-shirt. But it makes me think of a former college athlete like Chris Webber, the University of Michigan star in the Burger King ad. Webber recalled that as a student-athlete he couldn't afford to buy his own jersey in the campus bookstore.