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.