"You shouldn't care," about student athletes getting paid, Michael Lewis says, "unless you have some weird obsession with justice."
The NCAA is a plantation economy, a de facto minor league, and a rotting corpse of an institution that smells worse than mayonnaise left on the radiator.
-- Dave Zirin
USC is giving back Reggie Bush’s Heisman Trophy. Call me when Pete Carroll gives back a dime. Call me when USC offers a refund to all the people who purchased Reggie Bush jerseys.
As this year's March Madness comes to an end, most fans and TV viewers are focused on who wins and loses. Fewer are wondering, as Frontline's Lowell Bergman puts it, if they "should care" whether student athletes are being paid. Michael Lewis has a ready answer when he's asked this question: "You shouldn't care," he says, "unless you have some weird obsession with justice. The coaches make millions of dollars; the university rakes in all this dough, to the great detriment of the players themselves."
This detriment is getting greater each year. Back in 1995, power forward Ed O’Bannon led the UCLA Bruins to the NCAA Championship and was named college basketball player of the year and the NCAA’s Basketball Tournament Most Outstanding Player. Drafted by the Nets in 1995's first round, he went on to play for a couple of seasons in the NBA, then overseas. Now he sells cars at Findlay Toyota in Las Vegas. And, as of July 2009, he's suing the NCAA and the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC) for use of his likeness in videogames.
As Frontline: Money and March Madness -- a segment that aired last week and is now available online -- reports, O'Bannon was recruited to be lead plaintiff in the suit by Sonny Vaccaro, a former sports marketer who helped to establish the now-familiar relationships between athletes and commercial products, including Michael Jordan's sneaker contract with Nike. He went on to broker sponsorship deals between companies and schools, such that players would promote clothing and gear and schools would be paid. O'Bannon vs. NCAA was consolidated with another suit brought by former University of Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller against EA Sports (which argues the NCAA has deprived athletes of the "right of publicity"). In 2011, Oscar Robertson, the "Big O," joined the suit, now known as In re: NCAA Student-Athlete Name & Likeness Licensing Litigation.
Once of the concerns expressed in the suit is what Joakim Noah plainly identifies as the "exploitation" of student athletes. Though he's not a plaintiff, he talks to Frontline, he says, because college players are afraid to do so. While he's grateful for his own experience with the Gators (two national championships) and underlines what's great about NCAA tournaments ("The kids are giving it everything they got, and they're doing it for their schools, and the pride of-of their schools. That's a beautiful thing"), Noah also poses a crucial question. As the NCAA signs contracts with media corporations and shoe companies, someone is getting rich. "Who are these people making all this money?," asks Noah, "And shouldn't the kids get a piece of that?"
Legally, they cannot, because they sign agreements, in which they grant the NCAA rights to their images. In one such agreement, noted in a single-theme episode of HBO's Real Sports with Bryan Gumbel that aired 30 March, students give away these rights "forever and throughout the universe." Correspondent Bernie Goldberg points out in a Real Sports online conversation, schools argue that students have their tuitions paid and also, that students play for their schools, not for themselves. But, Gumbel adds, the counterargument is that college basketball and football programs (in particular at Division One schools) serve essentially as farm systems for professional teams. This means that while schools and the NCAA profit while students play, professional leagues -- the NFL and the NBA -- also benefit without having to pay "employees." (This isn't to say that a minor league system that underpays its workers, say, baseball players from the Dominican Republic, is ideal either.)
Given the typical case, wherein players sign renewable one-year agreements with the schools, their access to their educations depends on their sports performances (you might call this a version of pay-for-play). As sports economist Andrew Zimbalist tells Frontline, "If the person is no longer valuable to the coach, he doesn't have to waste one of his scholarships on that person -- even if the person's a terrific student, even if the person broke a leg. And so it seems clear that there is a compensation for a specific skill. And that makes it look very much like a professional job."
At the time he signed his agreement with UCLA, O'Bannon tells Real Sports' Goldberg, he didn't have a lawyer or even his parents look over the document. Now that he's a "grown man," and no longer "playing for his school," he wants to be paid when the NCAA profits from his image, whether in videogames or in "classic sports" footage that HBO or other TV networks pay the NCAA to use. Goldberg sums up, "The grownups at the NCAA were taking advantage of a bunch of 17-year-old kids." When Goldberg asks University of Georgia President Michael Adams whether student athletes should be paid, as any other business employees are paid, Adams points out that the NCAA and college sports programs are "not a business." Coaches are another story, he adds, as "We function in a market" and must compete accordingly.
That market is affected by rising costs (coaches' salaries, for instance) and the expansion of moneyed interests in college sports. As both Frontline and Real Sports point out, TV contracts have exponentially increased the amount of money at stake. (On Real Sports, Jason Whitlock asserts, "Let's acknowledge it's all a big TV show.") Real Sports -- which features interviews with O'Bannon as well as former Auburn University football players (Stanley McClover, Chaz Ramsey, Troy Reddick, and Raven Gray) who describe their experiences with "money handshakes" and other forms of pay-for-play) -- notes more than once that no NCAA representative would agree to be interviewed.
This makes Frontline's interview with new NCAA president Mark Emmert at least a little remarkable, if not revelatory. He sticks to the same sorts of talking points as Michael Adams. Describing a structure in which "90% of the revenue flows into the NCAA comes from the media rights and ticket sales for the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament." For example, the 14-year contract with CBS pays about $700 million a year, impressive, Bergman points out, for an association called "a non-profit." NCAA schools use some of this money to support sports programs that cannot support themselves (say, lacrosse or women's softball), as well as to pay administrators and coaches. Officially, none of the money goes to the players.
Bergman asks Emmert how he defends a system that inflates salaries for coaches, athletic directors, or the president of the NCAA, "when the players, when the athletes, are kept in tight financial circumstances." Emmert's answer is predictable: "I can't say often enough, obviously, that student-athletes are students. They are not employees."
Not in name, anyway. But as both Frontline and Real Sports demonstrate, NCAA student athletes not only perform as if they are employees, but are also treated as such. During the Real Sports Panel discussion, following Goldberg's report, titled "Numbers Game," and another by Andrea Kraemer called "Dirty Money," sports writer Jason Whitlock insists the "system is corrupt," that "no one believes in it anymore." But no one -- on this panel anyway -- seems sure of how to fix it (or even, as Whitlock proposes, how to "destroy" it). Jeff Orleans, who served as Ivy League Commissioner from 1984-2009 and helped to write 1972's Title IX regulation, suggests that college presidents might have a stake in ensuring that student athletes are treated as students rather than employees. But as they're also paid by the system as is, their interest in doing so is compromised, at best. So too is the coaches' interest, despite the insistence by Billy Packer that they should look after players' interests -- in education, rather than cash payments. Whitlock notes that it's usually the players who are punished for violations of this broken system, while programs and coaches continue to profit.
And so, even as 2011's March Madness comes to a close, the University of Connecticut and coach Jim Calhoun's historic run to a fourth championship game is framed by another story. In February 2011, the NCAA reduced UConn's scholarship reductions for three years, placed the basketball program on probation, and suspended Calhoun for three games next season, owing to their recruitment of former guard Nate Miles, specifically, for "failing to create an atmosphere of compliance" within UConn's program. Miles is looking for work. Calhoun has a five-year, $16 million contract.