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Adam Gold

NCAA athletes could receive cut of TV money

Posted January 30, 2013

Who are the most underpaid athletes in professional sports?

If you responded with anything other than college football and men's basketball players, you have answered this question incorrectly.  

I'm sorry for being misleading, but economically speaking, there is little, if any, difference between the college and pro games. The five – for the time being, at least – major football conferences currently are worth roughly $1 billion annually in television revenue alone.  

Then add NCAA men's basketball tournament monies, collegiate licensing dollars (you know, those numbered jerseys walking around college campuses on top of co-eds and intramural wannabes) and even the video games that use the likenesses of current and former players without any compensation, and you can see that no athletes on planet earth receive less compared to their overall value than those in college.

Well, there's a fairly good chance that the NCAA's mind-blowingly unfair business model is going to undergo a face lift. A California federal court judge has dealt a blow to the NCAA in an antitrust class action suit brought against it by former UCLA star Ed O'Bannon.

The suit began attacking video game manufacturers for using the images of current and former college players without compensation. The NCAA countered that college athletes voluntarily agreed to giving up any right to profit off their image, and that is true, until you understand that without doing so, they'd also forfeit their right to play, so I'm not entirely sure what's "voluntary" about that system.  

However, voluntary or not, the suit says that those rights were never intended to be forever. Players who were no longer saddled by their amateur status should have the right to profit from their likeness.

Obviously, the NCAA sees it differently. Imagine how much money would be owed to every player in every NCAA Tournament scene that has been used commercially? How much would the late Lorenzo Charles have received if he was eligible for royalties each time his game-winning dunk appeared in a commercial Even the University of Houston player weeping and slapping his hand on the floor would be eligible for compensation – every single time that footage was used commercially.  

Whoa! Now you see where this is headed.

Recently, the lawsuit was expanded to include the massive amount of live television money generated by the two revenue-producing sports and the NCAA went to court to prevent the addition on procedural grounds. Well, federal court judge Claudia Wilken sided with the plaintiffs in the case and a hearing is set for her courtroom on June 20 at which time the NCAA will have to argue on the merits of the law as opposed to procedure.

Merits? This doesn't bode well for the NCAA, and their corporate partner, Collegiate Licensing Company. It's got to be a tough sell to convince a judge that an industry that is worth billions of dollars annually is justified in giving back so little to the players we watch on fall Saturday afternoons and all throughout the madness of March. I can't wait to hear those arguments.

The Big Ten should be allowed to continue to distribute nearly $30 million per school in TV revenue alone, with much of that money finding it's way to the coaches and administrators while they try and placate the student-athletes with a stipend that amounts to a couple of dollars an hour.

But Adam, what about scholarships? Isn't that fair compensation?  And don't the jocks get the best dorms and the best dining hall food – if there is such a thing?

Yes, those things have value, but please don't insult your own intelligence by actually suggesting those to be an economically equitable exchange. Even if we're talking about $50,000 per year in value – which we're absolutely not – it still falls way short of being fair.

The truth of the matter is that the only reason for this situation is that college athletes have no players association like they have in the professional leagues, though that soon may change. We've recently discovered that former college athletes have banded together, and with the support of former college stars Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson, have laid the foundation for an organization, the Former College Athletes Association (FCAA) to negotiate licensing agreements with video game companies, member colleges and the NCAA. Of course, the former players still have to win their case, which is not a slam dunk.

My point is not that the NCAA should pay players, or that eligible players should receive a cut of the TV dollars, though licensing money should definitely be open for discussion. The reality is that there's no way, economically, that college athletes can become actual employees. If you think there's a gulf between the haves and the have-nots now…? It would be multiplied by a hundred in that case.

It's simply time to have an honest discussion about amateurism and the way the NCAA treats student athletes. That schools can make huge amounts of money off the images of current players and hide behind the facade of amateurism is borderline criminal. At the very least, former players should be allowed to benefit financially from video games and the sale of merchandise, but you could make the argument that even current players should get something more than laundry money in the process.

The biggest problem I see is that there isn't anyone truly looking out for the athletes' best interests. Even the most noble of coaches still does what's best for the program, first. If the two happen align, that's fantastic. But, if a choice needs to be made, they'll opt for program over individual – and that's not necessarily the wrong way for them to act. So allow players to have representation while they're in school. Allow a professional, someone approved by the university via a thorough screening process, to look out for the best interests of the player. And, if the marketplace sees a value in a financial arrangement between a company and given players – and we know that they will – allow it to happen. If those professionals see value in loaning players money, allow that to happen. But, let's stop pretending that the current system is even remotely equitable and can be remedied with the loose change in between the NCAA's couch cushions.

I have no idea how this story is going to end. In fact, while the hearing is scheduled for mid-June, the actual trial isn't going to start until the summer of 2014 – and that's assuming that there won't be typical pre-trial delays. Throw in the inevitable appeals, regardless of the victor, and we're unlikely to see a resolution to this case until 2015 or 2016 at the earliest. The important part of this story though, is that it seems certain that we're closing in on a sea change in the economics of intercollegiate athletics, and while that might not be the best thing for the NCAA and their member schools, it's exactly what needs to happen for the benefit of the athletes.

After all, while so many wallets are growing fat in this era of high dollar college sports, isn't it fair to at least give the athletes a little slice of that pie.

48 Comments

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  • Ken D. Jan 31, 3:49 p.m.

    And let's face it. If a few of those 26 sports were to dropped, the only people who would notice are the athletes and their families. I'm sure there are more athletes on UNC's women's rowing team on scholarship (20) than the number of spectators who have watched them perform.

  • Ken D. Jan 31, 3:15 p.m.

    Here's a question for you. If athletic scholarships were prohibited, how many of today's D-I... View More

    — Posted by Ken D.

    One of the big problems is that football and basketball must fund the entire athletic budget at... View More

    — Posted by uBnice

    UNC's athletic budget is large, I grant you. But at least $6 million a year of that is athletic scholarships in sports other than football. If only football were spun off from the university, and all athletic scholarships were eliminated, I believe the remaining costs would be manageable. And for schools with much smaller budgets than UNC's, that would be even more true.

  • uBnice Jan 31, 2:11 p.m.

    Here's a question for you. If athletic scholarships were prohibited, how many of today's D-I... View More

    — Posted by Ken D.

    One of the big problems is that football and basketball must fund the entire athletic budget at these Universities. For example, UNC-CH's athletic budget is $75-$80 million. That money is more than enough to have football and basketball entertainment businesses, but funding the other 26 sports makes it seems otherwise.

    So one solution is to make all non-revenue generating sports intramural and if we as a society want them bad enough, then let the taxpayer pay for it. Title IX should be paid for by the taxpayers, not the basketball and football players. And I support Title IX in principle.

  • Ken D. Jan 31, 10:27 a.m.

    Here's a question for you. If athletic scholarships were prohibited, how many of today's D-I schools would opt to sponsor a semi-pro football team, and how many would continue to field amateur teams the way the Ivy League does - with real students?

    I doubt if Duke or Wake Forest would. But what about schools like State and Carolina, which until now have never been truly competitive nationally? Would they invest the big bucks if they had to compete at a level where only the top 40-50 or so programs were their competition every week? Right now, by being able to play many of their games against other mediocre (and some awful) teams, they win a few more than they lose. If every opponent was a Southern Cal, Alabama, Oklahoma, etc. and they only won a few games a year, would their fans support that?

  • Ken D. Jan 31, 10:17 a.m.

    The simple solution for all this is to do away with all athletic scholarships, and make football... View More

    — Posted by Ken D.

    Best idea here, Ken.

    — Posted by Gunnstigator

    And happy birthday, gunny. :)

  • Ken D. Jan 31, 10:14 a.m.

    They get full scholarships to get a FREE education. They are already getting paid! To give them... View More

    — Posted by natsfan1965

    It is a job because Div I football and basketball are entertainment businesses that have very... View More

    — Posted by uBnice

    I agree. They are getting paid. There is no more obvious quid pro quo than a contract in which a player receives something of value in direct exchange for performing a service for a specified period of time (one year). This is an employment contract, plain and simple. The only way you can argue otherwise is to argue that neither the education nor the stipend for room and board have any value. Try to picture Duke's president trying to make that argument in court.

    The problem in basketball is fixable if athletic scholarships are prohibited. The NBA would likely have to allow all high school graduates to enter the league immediately, and they would have to continue to have a viable D-league. The NBA might not like this so much, since they now enjoy the free publicity they get from the NCAA. But a lot of their current superstars never played college ball, so they can get past that.

    Football is a much tougher nut to crack. Now, nobody can tell me that the NFL can't afford to finance a development league large enough to produce 250 rookie candidates a year. But how do you identify which players to bring into this D-league straight out of high school? You'd probably guess wrong as often as you'd guess right. So you would still have to rely on truly amateur college teams to provide some of your talent. And that pool would be limited to those students affluent enough to pay for their education, or bright enough to get an academic scholarship.

    There are no easy answers to this problem. But that doesn't mean schools shouldn't stop looking for one.

  • Gunnstigator Jan 31, 9:55 a.m.

    The simple solution for all this is to do away with all athletic scholarships, and make football... View More

    — Posted by Ken D.

    Best idea here, Ken.

  • uBnice Jan 30, 7:22 p.m.

    They get full scholarships to get a FREE education. They are already getting paid! To give them... View More

    — Posted by natsfan1965

    It is a job because Div I football and basketball are entertainment businesses that have very little to do with academia. Those college athletes and others are semi-professionals who spend, on average, 30-40 hours per week engaged in a very physical job that makes the Universities and the NCAA billions of dollars.

    The education is not free. If they don't play ball, they can't attend. They are not protected under workman's compensation and they do sustain injuries. Just like in the professional leagues. Universities have no obligation to a debilitated former player.

    It really is time to remove basketball and football businesses out of the schools. The economic model is unsustainable. The United States is the only country that does this with their college students. Everywhere else, those players would be playing on a club team in a semi-professional league. And then we won't have to pretend that a player who shouldn't even be in college will actually do college work like a regular student and work a physical, demanding job 30 to 40 hours a week.

  • Constitutional-Defender Jan 30, 7:16 p.m.

    These guys are getting free ride scholarships to attend colleges of their choice, get over it... View More

    — Posted by Mustange

    Free scholly is nothing compared to a billion dollar annual revenue take. It's actually wrong to not share more with the ones who generate it. "A free ride scholarship". LMA OFFFF!!!!!

  • MoDuke v2 is gone Jan 30, 7:07 p.m.

    That means everyone else would get to do what Dook has done for years, pay players.

    — Posted by DooksucksV3

    Are you really that stupid?!

    — Posted by lanecc

    If I may be allowed to answer that for you, the answer is a resounding YES!

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