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Oregon Ducks Football takes on University of California at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore. on Oct. 5, 2019. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)

It’s 2 p.m. on game day and Whole Foods is busier than I’ve ever seen it. Duck jerseys are everywhere. Each register has a line; it takes 10 minutes to check out. My walk home takes me through campus where student ambassadors are leading tours for prospective students. More Duck jerseys with players’ names proudly printed on the back. A sea of green and yellow blankets 13th Avenue. Every bar is packed, there’s a line out the door at Caspian’s, and you guessed it, Duck jerseys abound. 

Later that day, around 41,000 fans pack into our modest multi-million dollar monolith of a stadium. Concession stand workers satiate the hungry masses, frantically slinging hotdogs, popcorn and beer at exorbitant prices. The lights come on. Cameras criss-cross the stadium, broadcasting every possible angle on national networks to millions of homes. The announcers settle in, loudspeaker blaring, and the team streams onto the field. Athletes who have put in incomprehensible time and effort, set aside personal lives, wellness needs, sleep and relaxation to be under these lights on Saturday. 

What happens under these lights is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Tens of millions of dollars change hands each fall Saturday and these players don’t see a cent of it. It’s time they do. 

College football is sown into the fabric of Eugene. It’s not just jersey sales. It’s recruitment and revenue for the University, alumni donations and the local economy writ large. It’s why my trip to Whole Foods was twenty minutes and not ten, why there was standing room only in every bar on 13th Avenue and it’s what those tour guides are selling to prospective students. A 2011 study by a UO economist put the Athletic department’s “gross economic impact from all revenue sources,” in the state of Oregon at $258 million, supporting almost three thousand jobs and almost $90 million in household earnings. 

Stats like these confirm that all student athletes should be paid, but the nature of football makes payment urgent. As the body of research about concussions and CTE in ex-football players grows, one thing is becoming clear: People gamble their long-term wellness in this sport for our entertainment. They play for an industry that pays Nike but not the linebacker who risks everything to lace up.

Some people think that scholarships are fair compensation. These people are wrong. 

D1 players face immense time constraints. Hypothetically, they can only practice for three hours in a row, or five hours in a day, but these benchmarks don’t include time spent reviewing film, in the weight room, getting to and from the practice complex, game preparation or travel time. Being a D1 football player at UO is a full-time job, and probably more. A 2014 study by the National Labor Relations Board highlights this reality. It found that D1 football players “spend 50 to 60 hours per week on their football duties during a one-month training camp prior to the start of the academic year and an additional 40 to 50 hours per week on those duties during the three- or four-month football season.” 

It is a documented fact that learning specialists and coaches push players toward certain classes and degrees that won’t interfere with their playing. These degrees that “compensate” players are thoroughly subordinate to their primary directive from the school: playing football. 

This myth feeds a pernicious misconception about college football. As CNBC reporter Jake Novak points out, when you erase the “student-athlete” myth, college football is exposed for what it truly is: an exploitative minor league system that for 98.5% of players won’t lead to the NFL. It’s the most profitable minor league system in the United States by far. It’s also the only one that doesn’t pay. 

Nearly everyone in Autzen either pays or gets paid to be there. Players do the former. They are paying with their time and their bodies. They are paying the school and their coaches. They are paying local businesses and international sports conglomerates. They are paying all of us. Let’s pay them back.