Tuesday, April 16, 2013

College Athletes Should Be Paid - The Final Four Chronicles

This past weekend the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Final Four was held in Atlanta. The four surviving teams in the bracket-busting Division 1 basketball tournament gathered for the semifinals and championship game at the Georgia Dome before 75,000 howling fans. In addition to the attendees, countless millions watched on television, listened by radio, or tuned in via simulcast on the Internet. Sunday night I went down to Centennial Olympic Park to enjoy the Final Four festivities that included a series of free open-air concerts featuring top name acts. Before crossing the street to enter Centennial Olympic Park I stopped on a street corner and stepped up on a secondary curb that divided the parking lot from the sidewalk to survey the scene. I was finally a seven-footer. Thousands of people were bustling about enjoying the atmosphere. I put on my sociology thinking cap on and decided dissect what was going on.  I saw extra police who were part of the 800 city and county officers working overtime. Specialty food trucks were sprinkled about the area. Merchandise vendors were on practically every street corner. The few local restaurants in the vicinity were packed. I looked up to see the top of the Westin Hotel and thought about how many hotels downtown were sold out, with the cheapest room reportedly costing a stiff $300 a night. I noticed several out of town cars and trucks stuck in the predictably horrible traffic: undoubtedly some of them were rental cars. I saw posters highlighting musical artists like Zac Brown Band, Sting, The Dave Matthews Band and Flo-Rida – about 12 total for the weekend – that were performing for free during the weekend. Then it dawned on me.  Folks were getting paid. Everyone who was involved with putting on the Final Four by providing services or entertainment or merchandise to the fans were all turning a coin. The ultimate absurdity is that the only people who did not get a slice of this “Peach Pie” are the ones responsible for all this – the athletes. The players do not see one single dime. Why? Because according to the NCAA, college basketball players are amateurs, meaning, they can’t be paid for their services or talent. That’s right. These amateurs are generating hundreds of millions of dollars  - probably closer to billions - for everyone involved but can’t have any of it for themselves.  If I did not know better I would think the Robber Barons of 19th century were still around under the guise of the NCAA.  

Think about whom else is getting paid during Final Four weekend. Georgia Power got paid because of all the electricity used by the Dome, the Georgia World Congress Center and Centennial Park. Airlines, trains, cabs, buses and rental car companies all made money from the weekend. Even the gas stations saw some extra green by supplying local fans and out-of-town devotees with fuel. The local malls, department stores, grocery stores and liquor stores saw an increase in business mainly from visitors in town for the weekend. The City of Atlanta got a huge economic boost (a $70 million kick according to Forbes Magazine). While I enjoyed the Final Four immensely I could not help but wonder how the players on Wichita State, Syracuse, Michigan and Louisville felt when they see all these dollars being generated and they can’t have $1 of it for themselves. To me thats the real “March Madness”.

Everyone around the college game is making loot. Usually the highest paid state employee is either the football or the basketball coach. Millions are dolled out to coaches of these supposed amateur players (University of Louisville’s head basketball coach Rick Pitino, whose team won the National Title, earns $6.7 million per year). The coach’s employment is dependent on the performance of the college athlete. CBS and Turner Sports are in the second year of a 14-year contract with the NCAA to broadcast “March Madness” tournament games for a whopping $10.8 billion.  (The yearly payment from the contract reportedly represents up to 90% of the NCAA’s total revenue per year.) Sports broadcast personalities on ESPN, CBS and TNT are paid handsomely to provide predictions, commentary, and play-by-play analysis. The college athlete gets nothing but adoration and memories but no dough.

I used to argue that college athletes are already getting paid with free college tuition, which includes room and board and meals.  But my opinion has been evolving over the past few years. After the Final Four weekend my thinking completed its shift. Given the amount of money floating around that weekend and the fact that coaches got bonuses for taking their teams to the Final Four (Wichita State’s coach Greg Marshall got a $136,000 bonus; Louisville’s coach Rick Pitino got a total haul of $325,000 in Final Four bonus money plus an additional $2.7 million retention bonus), I don’t understand why the athletes who are truthfully responsible for  ‘making it rain’ can’t be given a monthly stipend. If anything, it’s the players that are taking the coaches to the Final Four. Further, the NCAA has a “basketball fund” of nearly $200 million used to reward schools for their post-season success. And the schools can use that money any way they see fit. When the price of a ticket to Final Four games rivals the costs of Super Bowl tickets then college sports is already a pro league. The average price of a semifinal ticket at this year’s Final Four averaged a record-shattering $1,190 each.  The most expensive ticket to championship game was $4,199. They are charging professional sports prices to watch supposedly amateur athletes. I agree with former Duke standout and current ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. He says the only thing amateur about college sports is the NCAA leadership.

I have heard the arguments against giving college athletes a stipend or payment for play. A couple of days after the Final Four weekend I heard a debate about this very issue on a local sports radio show. Callers against the idea of giving athletes money used justifications like the athletes find a way to get tattoos so they must have money (this has nothing to do with paying them or not; if anything it reeks of racism since most revenue generating athletes are black and most have tattoos). Or that they essentially need to suffer like they did when they went to college – not even thinking that the athletes are not like normal students who can get jobs.  The NCAA bars student athletes from having a job because it says the athletes ‘s job is to compete for their school. I suspect if some of these callers were to trade places with these athletes and see all the millions being made by coaches and campuses they would feel different. Then others say that college athletes are already getting paid with free tuition, room and food and they come out with no debt. That is actually not the case with most athletes. They still wind up taking out student loans because they have no other means to earn money. They have to borrow it. The athletes would make ridiculously more money than a four-year scholarship, room, board and food if they were given a fair share of the profits instead of free schooling.  

When I was in college at Oregon I was given a scholarship (tuition remission) and a stipend for working as a TA for 20 hours a week. According in NCAA rules student athletes are not supposed to practice more than 20 hours a week. The university I attended gave me tuition and a stipend because they had a vested interest in my success, just as the schools, the NCAA, television networks, athletic gear companies and other sponsors have a vested interest in the success of the athletes. The stipend did not make me rich, just as a stipend would not make student-athletes rich.

An example of how unfair college athletics is and how every ounce of money is made off the sweat and blood of athletes is the gruesome injury suffered by the University of Louisville’s Kevin Ware in the Midwest Regional Final. If you want to get the whole story of what happened you can read it here. I was flabbergasted when I learned that Adidas and the University of Louisville peddled t-shirts to “honor” the incapacitated Ware. Adidas has a contract with the University of Louisville to supply uniforms, shoes, and other athletic gear (the coach and school gets paid by Adidas for letting them use their athletes to  ‘advertise’ their wares). Adidas made special t-shirts bearing Kevin Ware’s name and number and sold them for profit. Kevin Ware does not get a dime. Not one nickel. Not one cent. Probably not even a freebie from Adidas because it’s against NCAA rules for players to accept gifts. To be fair, other manufacturers made Kevin Ware t-shirts and sold them for revenue, too. The young man suffered a horrific bone-break trying to win a game for his school. Adidas and the University pounced on this awful injury and found a way to cash in on this catastrophe. Eventually Adidas was shamed into removing the shirt from its website and merchandise racks after the media shed light on how they were exploiting the player. Even the pain, tragedy and trauma suffered by Ware had a price tag. Everything is for sale when it comes to college athletics.

Thankfully someone is challenging the NCAA. Former UCLA basketball standout Ed O’Bannon is the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the NCAA currently being litigated in federal court. Among the plaintiffs are NBA legends Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell who were superb college athletes, along with several former football players and other athletes. The NCAA requires all competitors – regardless of the sport – to sign a waiver that essentially prevents the athlete from receiving compensation from the use of their own name or likeness that references their college-playing career.  This waiver is enforced while the student is in college and when their playing career is over. The athlete can never make money because the NCAA owns their college careers.  O’Bannon says this is unfair and is suing the NCAA for selling his UCLA likeness to EA Sports for a video game.  O’Bannon did not receive a dime. Probably not even a free game. What the NCAA is doing, according to the plaintiffs, is violating the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. The Sherman Antitrust Act  prohibits price fixing, which means that a business or a person who labors should be paid what they deserve or what is reasonably fair. Coincidently, the Act was partly aimed at reigning in the Robber Barons who used any measure they could conjure up to crush workers and competition to maximize profits.  The case is now before a federal judge and the NCAA is worried that a ruling against them will release a floodgate of demands for monies and pave the way for athletes to be paid. The NCAA is terrified that they will have to play by the same rules any other multibillion-dollar business has to follow.  

Jon Stewarts recently spoofed the ubsurdity of NCAA rules against athletes using their own names to earn money.

If the athlete is the product being sold, why aren’t the athletes getting a taste of the profits? Its interesting that many conservatives call President Obama a socialist when the NCAA rules prohibits 'working' athletes from earning a wage. That smacks of socialism and maybe slavery. After all, slaves were given free room and board and food, too. How any self-proclaimed capitalist thinks this system is fair baffles me.

The only consequence of being labeled an amateur is that you cannot get paid for your athletic performances. That is it. That’s all. There is nothing in the in state or federal law that prohibits players from being paid or receiving a stipend. If anything, the law may actually be on the side of the athletes. The aforementioned Sherman Antitrust Act may finally open the wallets of the NCAA and universities. Title IX would not be a barrier because all athletes, regardless of sport or gender would be paid a stipend. My thinking is that if all competitors were given a stipend then the “supply” of athletes for the non-revenue generating sports would not be affected. The amount of the stipend could be different for each sport which would covered by the Javits Amendment to Title IX in which reasonable provisions can be made for specific sports. The only thing that is preventing players from getting a taste of the “greens” they're growing is the greed and denial of the NCAA and the college Presidents.  As the growth of college sports continues I suspect that someone is going to challenge the NCAA to get something other than tuition and board for the millions they generate. No one is saying that the players should get rich, but they should not be living below the poverty line either. Not when they are the engines of a multibillion-dollar industry. 

Additional resources

Read the Ed O’Bannon case and how a typical big collegesports program uses the money earned through athletics.