WASHINGTON–U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) on Wednesday hosted Madness, Inc., a live virtual summit featuring three panels with current and former college athletes and advocates to discuss the gross inequities in college sports and how we fix them. Murphy moderated a panel with U.S. Representative Jamaal Bowman, the House sponsor of the College Athlete Right to Organize Act, Bart Sheard, Legislative Representative with the AFL-CIO, and Kassidy Woods, a member of the University of Northern Colorado football team, on empowering college athletes.

Murphy highlighted that college sports are a multi-billion dollar industry where the people doing the work make nothing, saying: “The college sports industry has grown almost overnight from a $3 or $4 billion industry to a $15 billion-a-year industry, and the only thing that's different about big-time college athletics versus professional athletics is that the people doing the work aren't getting paid. That is a civil rights issue. It's an economic rights issue. And if we don't fix it, we'll be worse off as a nation, but frankly, college sports won't be around 10 or 20 years [from now] because students are getting wise to this game, and as someone who's a diehard college sports fan, I want students to have the ability to go to school and play sports, but get fairly compensated for the amount of money that they're making right now for everybody else in the college sports industry.”

Woods shared his story on how organizing as a college athlete during the pandemic cost him his scholarship: “During the height of the pandemic, a lot of the athletes, we didn't feel that our health and safety was taken into consideration. And so along with myself and many other guys across the PAC 12, we decided to do the #WeAreUnited movement to demand for health and safety protections because we weren't seeing anything done throughout the summer and up until fall camp. And so with them, I decided to call my coach and let him know that just I didn't feel safe. I mean, I have sickle cell trait, so my health was at risk with the virus and I just didn't feel safe playing.”

Woods continued: “And so as I proceeded to tell my coach about this, he said it’s one thing to talk about, you know, being out for COVID and having sickle cell trait, but it's another thing to start this movement called #WeAreUnited, which demands for health and safety protection. So that's when he proceeded to cut me. I lost all access to my facilities. I lost my scholarship. I didn't get fed and as a full scholarship athlete actually you are supposed to get fed. And I didn't receive those benefits. I was told to go home.”

Bowman highlighted how the labor rights issue in college sports is a microcosm of American inequality: “Over the last several decades, wages have been stagnant, labor has been under attack, and the cost of living has gone up, right. So we have this level of inequality in our nation, and college sports captures all of that. I mean talk about TV deals, ticket prices, apparel costs, price of tuition at colleges have gone up substantially. Students choose universities based on the popularity of the athletics departments. I mean, that's a fact. So all of this money that’s generated – all this money that coaches make, that presidents make, TV deals – people are getting wealthy, while our athletes continue to struggle and not feel empowered to have a voice in anything, let alone how much money they make.”

On the circular argument of amateurism in college sports, Sheard said: “This myth of amateurism and student athletes is kind of the backbone of this exploitation system that has gone on. The NCAA relies on revered tradition in a way explaining of why athletes shouldn’t deserve compensation, but it's kind of a circular, confusing argument, right. Like these workers, these college athletes are amateurs because they don't get paid. And we can't pay them because they're amateurs. It doesn't really make any sense.”

On the millions of dollars schools spend on coaches compared to scholarships, Murphy said: “I think people need to understand the plight of college athletes today. While their coaches are making multi-million dollar salaries, all the athletes are getting is the scholarship. And now the NCAA will say the scholarship is good enough, but let me just give you a point of comparison. If you look at the Power 5 schools, there are about 4,500 coaches, and there are about 45,000 athletes. The coaches are making more money in salary than the total amount of scholarship for the 45,000 athletes.”

Woods, who is a current college athlete, shared his hope for the future: “[W]e can revolutionize the NCAA. We can and we will by doing the work, creating nonprofit and democratically-led players associations, creating labor unions to bargain collectively for us to be employees at our respective universities and any changes that we want to be made in the future. I really do believe that we can do it. It's just cool to see how many athletes are speaking out because  just because we are the exploited group within the system doesn't mean that we can't use our voices to make change.”

Murphy along with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and U.S. Representatives Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) introduced the College Athlete Right to Organize Act, legislation to provide collective bargaining rights for college athletes. Murphy and Trahan also wrote the College Athlete Economic Freedom Act, which grants unrestricted rights to college athletes over the use of their name, image, and likeness.

Click here to watch the full summit.