Nepali sherpas guiding climbers up Mount Everest may not seem to have much in common with Northwestern University football players, but both were in the news this week due to labor issues. As different as they seem, both form elite groups whose work is exploited by others for profit. That profit is large.
Nepal is one of the poorest, least developed countries on the planet. The term sherpa refers to a small, ethnic minority, but has come to be synonymous with the elite climbing guides who work throughout the Himalayas. The job of sherpa pays well. In a country where most people live on under $300/year, the prospect of making $6,000 or more for a season is very enticing. The Nepali government also makes millions from climbers. They actively encourage men to take this on as a career. So, the climbers get a great experience, the touring companies charge a fortune and the government rakes in the fees. Sherpa deserve a bigger share of profits from an industry that they make possible.
Likewise, college athletes work and take risks for others’ amusement and profit. Like the sherpas, they are equally celebrated, and the risk football players take is considerable. Football is a dangerous sport. The NFL recognizes this and takes care of its retired players, maybe it’s time universities do the same. This is a multi-billion dollar business. Fans have a great time, television networks make a huge profit and universities gain prestige and make money. Everyone involved seems to profit more than the people on the field.
When Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summited Everest in 1953, Hillary said he “didn’t think the world would care too much about a simple bee keeper from New Zealand.” He spawned a multimillion dollar industry. The world of college sports has grown in the same way. The time has come to recognize how these sports have become businesses, and treat the people who make them happen accordingly.