For many, this is the best time of year to be a fan of college sports as college football’s perineal powerhouses continue to slug it out to qualify for the first NCAA FBS football tournament and college basketball is just about to tip-off the season. Now more than ever we will see pudgy, middle aged men reminiscing about the glory days while dressed in the team colors of Florida State, Duke, UCLA and Alabama. College sports is veritable cash cow and, next to the NFL, could possibly be the largest legal monopoly in the United States.
That’s saying a whole lot, but its a claim not without merit; perhaps these numbers will help put it into perspective. According to ESPN, the University of Alabama Crimson Tide reported $123,769,841 in revenue in 2008. That figure included $28,410,419 in ticket sales, $8,825,964 in media rights and $4,506,056 in branding rights for merchandise and apparel. In addition, according to the Indy Star, the NCAA made $912.8 million last year. 84 percent of those funds came from the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Every year since 2001 the NCAA has made more money than it did the previous year and is clearly on the verge of securing a $1 billion revenue year in the immediate future. Yet not only does this mafia-like organization continue to claim a non-profit 501 (c)(3) status, it scoffs at the very idea of having its power usurped by, or even shared with, the players that help it earn its profits.
Despite these staggering numbers, scandals and conflicts, fans still tune in, cheer, drink beer and wager on college sports year after year. After all, it’s really not our problem, is it?
The answer is that it actually is.
However the American lexicon is one in which capitalism drives industry. But when said industry is explicit in its refusal to offer fair compensation for services, it stinks of indentured servitude. I'm sure that a great percentage of our readership is scoffing at this comparison, but it is a fair one in theory when considering all the aspects of the situation.
The NCAA claims that a full ride scholarship is fair compensation for services rendered by student-athletes. Most of the time, a scholarship includes room and board. However, there are other expenses incurred by the average college student that have gone unrecognized in the past. Who can argue that they could subsist on three meals a day while they were between the ages of 18 and 24 years old? Certainly not I. Also, college kids go through clothing, toiletries and other essentials on a regular basis. Despite this fact, student-athletes on scholarship are not allowed to be employed to offset these expenses.
It was only recently that the NCAA Board of Directors approved a rule change that allowed Division I student athletes to receive unlimited meals and snacks, a change from the previous policy that only allowed three meals a day. However, this was a thinly vieled attempt to declaw the idea that student athletes should be paid for their services.
Where were these athletes supposed to get their other meals, additional clothing and hygienic toiletries? From home? Many of their parents simply do not have the money to subsidize their kids’ other expenses. For many, that was the whole idea behind working hard to get a scholarship in the first place.
Some athletes are able to get by based upon the goodness of friends or sympathetic professors (which is actually against the rules) while others pool their resources for groceries and other living essentials. I knew of some who resorted to illegal means to acquire additional resources, which is another discussion unto itself.
While attending a small college in upstate New York in the 90's I knew of a soccer player nicknamed Country. Standing about six feet tall, she was a big, strong girl of a working class Midwestern upbringing with a freckled face and blonde hair. She was attending the school on scholarship but was kicked out amid allegations that she was a serial shoplifter at the local supermarket, accused of stealing food products, stuffing them in her baggy sweatpants and walking out the door.
I’ll never forget seeing her sit in the cafeteria on her last day on campus. It was a small school, so every athlete was familiar with one another no matter the sport. As she sobbed over her squandered scholarship, we all surrounded her and tried to soothe her broken heart. We knew she was wrong for her actions, but we sympathized because we knew that it could have been any one of us. There were many times when a romp with an unattractive coed was seen as fair exchange for a decent sandwich and some snacks when the cafeteria was closed.True story. That may seem comical, but it isn’t meant to be. It was just part of being a starving college student from a family with little means.
In addition, I knew of several individuals at surrounding institutions that subsidized their expenses by selling marijuana, buying bootleg liquor and selling it at a premium on Sundays and other manners of nefarious commerce that would have gotten them kicked out of school if they were discovered.
I didn’t know of a single student-athlete who committed these deeds that did them for the sake of being a bad ass or a rebel without a cause. Hunger is the mother of criminality more often than anyone would like to admit. It’s far easier to say that criminals are born that way than to acknowledge the existence of unfair economic circumstance.
As is the case with most instances of institutionalism, whoever sways from the path laid out by the NCAA is subject to their rather arbitrary brand of justice, and the chances of finding support in their defense are difficult, slim and expensive. How can a student-athlete be expected to challenge and defeat a powerful institution, one with deep pockets and strong partners, such as the NCAA? The fact is that they can't, at least not while they're still in school, helping their school win games, generate ratings and funnel in revenues.
In October RB Todd Gurley was suspended indefinitely by the University of Georgia during an ongoing investigation to discover whether he signed autographs for money. UGA determined that he had taken $3,000 in cash in exchange for signing memorabilia. The University was also able to acquire video of Gurley accepting the funds from an unidentified third party.
About a month prior to that incident, Florida State QB Jameis Winston was reported to have signed over 2,000 pieces of memorabilia. The James Spence Authentication website acknowledged the signatures were real but would not release any information on the identities of the people who submitted the items for authentication. Winston never missed any game time because there never was any proof that he was paid for the autographs.
2013 Heisman Trophy-winning QB Johnny Manziel missed half a game due to similar charges that he had accepted money to sign memorabilia. Like Winston, there was never any proof Manziel had actually gotten paid for his services.
Chances are at least one of the aforementioned individuals signed memorabilia for cash and did so simply because he needed the money. Not because of greed or some other maleficent reason. Some of them did it because they needed new clothes, new shoes or even some form of transportation; but regardless of what they needed, the fact is that most of these violations were committed because the student actually needed something of importance.
Some schools have finally acknowledged the disparity between their athletes scholarships amounts and the extra expenses they may incur. The University of Texas Longhorns announced that they would be providing a “considerable” stipend to Texas football players to cover additional costs of attendance. School Athletic Director Steve Patterson recently told a forum in Washington D.C. that the school is prepared to spend around $6 million a year to cover this new deal. The following day the University of Minnesota announced it would be giving a cost-of-attendance stipend to its student-athletes as well. But so far, these are rare cases in the multi-multi-million dollar world of college sports.
According to NFL.com, there is an average cost gap of $2,194 per year. The cost-of-attendance gap for the University of Texas is $5,000. These numbers help us highlight the financial gaps that many student-athletes struggle to cover once they’re on campus of their respective institutions.
Earlier this year a judge ruled in favor of former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon in a case over whether the NCAA can use the images of student athletes without compensating them. While it appears that the pendulum of power titled in the direction of the student-athletes for the first time since the NCAA was created by Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, there still exists great schisms apparent in the relationship between the NCAA and the student-athletes that fall under its umbrella.
Every year thousands of perspective student athletes from across the country sign letters of intent to attend the institution of their choice for upcoming year. The signings of the prized high school football and basketball players are far more widely publicized than those for other sports because of the amount of money football and basketball earn for the schools, conferences and the NCAA. But it is worth pondering whether or not these young prospects or their parents ever actually read the letters in complete detail to obtain a sufficient understanding of exactly what they’re getting themselves into. In today's world of sports business, both a letter of intent and a scholarship offer are legal documents, so many parents might want to consider having an attorney review them as they are binding and effect the next few years of that athletes life.
The NLI assures financial aid to the student athlete for one academic year. It also ensures that all other colleges cease recruiting said player. If the student changes his or her mind after signing the NLI they are forced to give up one year of eligibility. In addition, a student athlete can have his or her scholarship taken from them for just about any non-academic reason the sponsoring institution can think of. I say non-academic because the common thought process is that student athletes have their scholarships taken from them for failure to perform in the classroom or for misbehaving off the field. However, that is an extreme misnomer. A head coach can take your scholarship away if he believes you’re not good enough to play at that level or if you’re riding the bench and he wants to recruit someone else at your position. He can even cut you simply because he doesn’t like your “attitude”.
Back in 2010, most Big Ten schools, in addition to traditional powerhouses Auburn and Florida, announced they would be giving four-year guarantees to incoming athletes. But this was more of a recruiting stunt to get the best-of-the-best to agree to come to their campuses. However, the truth of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of said programs do not want to offer such guarantees. Of the 330 football schools that cast a ballot in a 2011 referendum, 205 voted against four-year scholarships. The 41 year ban on offering such scholarships was uplifted, it doesn’t mean schools have to offer a complete four-year ride; it simply gives them the option to do so.
Should a student have his scholarship rescinded he has no legal recourse to challenge it. So how exactly are students getting a fair shake again?
Even in instances where a student athlete is living up to their end of the bargain he/she isn’t afforded any guarantees. It goes without saying that football is a rough sport and basketball players can suffer some pretty horrendous injuries as well. But did you know that most college programs outside of the state of California (where legislations has been passed to protect injured players) are not legally obligated to pay the medical expense of injured players?
The NCAA catastrophic injury fund would pay personal deductibles exceeding $90,000. But there’s no obligation to cover injury costs that fall below that threshold. The NCAA would argue that a full ride is fair compensation for services rendered. However, there’s no guarantee that a player who’s busting their butt on the field and in the classroom will not get cut, no guarantees that injured players will have their medical expenses paid and no guarantee that a university will behave fairly in considering special requests on a player to player basis.
This was brought to light by the situation former University of Alabama basketball player Daisha Simmons. As was discussed by The Shadow League and other media outlets, Daisha was a former four-star recruit out of Jersey City, NJ who played for Alabama for two years after transferring from Rutgers. She graduated last year but was not accepted into the university’s MBA program, thus opted to transfer to Seton Hall University to play one more year while earning her MBA and help take care of her mother and ailing brother.
One would think that it was a no-brainer that the Crimson Tide athletic department would let her transfer due to these particular circumstances. She fulfilled her end of the bargain, correct? Well, of course she did but the university refused. The timing of her request apparently left them without a suitable replacement though they wouldn’t admit that in so many words. The NCAA initially backed their decision despite having a sufficient number of reasons to rule otherwise; however, after much public consternation toward the Crimson Tide and the NCAA itself, the ruling was overturned and Simmons will be allowed to play with Seton Hall during the upcoming season. Clearly they were feeling the heat seeing as though they rarely overrule themselves.
To be certain, an athletic scholarship can be a great thing. However, students and their guardians do themselves a great disservice by blindly believing that the NCAA and the college of their choice will automatically behave in an altruistic manner. As is the case in the greater American society, individuals who have blind trust in any institution are due for a letdown. The only people who are going to protect your rights is you.
No matter how charismatic a head coach is, or how impressive a school's training facility is, winning is the bottom line in college sports.