When it comes to recognizing billion dollar businesses in the US, most will often cite Fortune 500 companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Berkshire Hathaway, or even Wal-Mart. For those who are better versed in sports than in business, the easiest ones to recognize are the four major professional sports organizations: the NBA, MLB, NFL, and NHL. A lesser-recognized giant in the billion dollar pool is the NCAA. Earning $16B in revenue annually, America’s beloved tradition of college sports has transformed into a giant cash cow that the country has capitalized off of for decades. Between bowl games and tournaments, player jerseys, televised games, and ticket sales, the organization has made millions off of “pure talent”: recruiting the best high school athletes and giving them the opportunity of a lifetime to get a Division I education and the potential to go pro. Though the perks of a great education and dreams of playing on a professional are great, many of these young athletes are finding themselves at the bottom of the barrel when it comes time for the payout and are now starting to take issue with it.
In 2009, Ed O’Bannon’s filed suit against the NCAA for allegedly forcing former college athletes to “relinquish rights to compensation for use of their images after they no longer are student-athletes”, challenging the NCAA rules that determine how much college athletes get in return for playing their respective sports. Five years later, the case is going to trial with the potential of having Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney and NCAA president Mark Emmert taking the stand. Having two of the top NCAA officials cross-examined could make things tricky for the organization, and the level of scrutiny that grows by the day only makes this case that much more intriguing as each layer is peeled off week by week as the court convenes. Though NCAA rules currently prevent players for being compensated for their hard work, it’s time for the organization to revisit the topic of financial compensation for athletes and the means in which they do so.
College athletes getting paid to play is a polarizing issue in the realm of sports. The argument I’ve encountered is normally against paying college athletes to play a sport, citing that paying to play sends the wrong message to these young men by placing a higher importance on athletics than academics. However, before making the assumption, one should examine college athletics holistically, starting from the initial stages of recruiting. From the earliest stage of the process (meaning during an athlete’s high school career), these young men are already looking at college athletics from a business perspective: they aren’t choosing their alma maters based on their academic reputation, rather on their athletic reputation. They have a specific skill set to market to top colleges throughout the country, and this fact is made well aware by recruiters who pay athletes under the table in an attempt to woo them to their respective school.
Apropos of this, O’Bannon’s anti-trust argument comes into play. He has a solid case against the NCAA for violating the Sherman anti-trust laws, the most glaring example found in Sports Illustrated’s four-part expose on Oklahoma State Football in September 2013. Several former players came forth to confirm that they had received sums of money (“gratuities”) for having good games, a de facto reward system based on field performance, as well as direct “boosters” and incentives from coaches independent of field play. The Sherman Anti-Trust act states that a “per se” violation occurs when there are “agreements, conspiracies or trusts in restraint of trade.” The Oklahoma State scandal directly implicates the NCAA in violation of such. Paying players under the table in money or goods in order to keep them or draw them to a college of interest “lacks any redeeming virtue”, to quote the anti-trust laws directly. Interestingly enough, there were only 15 to 20 paid players out of a roster of more than 70 players, meaning that not everybody on the team was afforded the same luxuries. Again, the NCAA violates the “per se” rule by directly controlling the competition between schools: whomever has the best players will be the best in the league, thus, colleges will do what they must to keep them enrolled.
Furthermore, the NCAA is also in violation of personality rights. Though these rights may vary directly in correlation with civil law jurisdictions, there are specific codes provided to protect an individual’s image and personal data from being released to the public. In July 2009, Bowl players and men’s basketball players were allegedly forced to sign release forms that would”relinquish rights to compensation for use of their images after they no longer are student-athletes”, which indicates collusion among NCAA schools and affiliates to keep the money within the hands of everyone involved but the players. Plaintiffs from the O’Bannon case could further implicate the organization in collusion activities. EA Sports was allegedly prepared to pay men’s football and basketball players for the use of their names, images, and likenesses in NCAA-related games, but could not due to organization restrictions on such compensation.
Ultimately, the organization needs to find a way to compensate players for the time and effort they have spent perfecting their craft if not fully, partially. The first step in doing so is re-vamping the model of academics which, frankly, is aptly described: amateur. The NCAA prides itself on considering athletes as students first and foremost, yet their actions prove otherwise as seen by Rashad McCant’s allegations of academic fraud at UNC. The academics model should be modernized to specifically designate student athletes as a different breed from their non-athlete counterparts for two reasons: one being their intent to commit to a school, the second of which is their purpose for remaining at said school.
As aforementioned, many of these young men attend prestigious schools not for academics, but for a greater return of investment on their career as a future professional player. They are not touted because of their stellar GPAs, they are not paid to attend class and get straight A. They are essentially recruited to be a workhorse for the NCAA and generate revenue. With that being said, all players should have an increased stipend as well as a percentage of merchandise, ticket sales, and video game revenue. These two are important especially for the athletes who are not fortunate enough to go pro; lured under the guise of money, women, and NFL/NBA dreams, academics come secondary to athletics, which leaves many of these young men confused and both financially and emotionally unprepared for the realities of life as they wistfully clamor for the glory days of being a college athlete. Undoubtedly, the NCAA will continue to remain America’s cash cow, but only time will tell whether they will remain a corporate giant permanently seeing dollar signs or a business that strives for both academic and personal integrity to strengthen their brand.
Stay tuned for a counter-point from our Editor-in-Chief Daniel Fanaroff tomorrow.