by Kent Sterling
In all things, what’s right gets done eventually. It never happens as quickly as logic would dictate, but right always wins the debate in the end.
“They should be happy with their scholarship!” as a retort to those advocating for the payment of collegiate athletes is falling out of favor with every response of “Why should an adult allow others tell him what makes him happy?”
Ed O’Bannon’s class action lawsuit will be heard in Oakland, California in June, and it will determine the legality of schools mandating control over the licensing of an athlete’s image while he plays for the school. That is, unless the two sides negotiate a compromise in advance of the trial.
Rules prevent all college athletes from selling their autographs, receiving compensation for their image’s inclusion in video games, and denying the ability to monetize their image in any other way.
They exist for a single reason, and it’s the same reason so many other rules exist – money. Schools have asserted leverage in the rule making process to open additional reservoirs of cash, and that they come at the expense of easily controlled students, well, what’s the problem with that?
When I spent a summer as a camp counselor in northern Wisconsin, I worked to make the experience positive for the campers. Another counselor put his arm around me after the first week and said, “You don’t understand how this works. We’re not here for the campers. They’re here for us.”
Every time I think of John Calipari ‘earning’ more than $5 million per year, and Nick Saban making an obscene $7 million, I think about that brief conversation at camp. The athletes, many of whom enter school without the proper preparation for the education they are offered in exchange for their skill and effort on the field or court and who will leave school long before getting a degree, get no money.
Some are eligible for a Pell Grant over and above their scholarship, but from the school for which they work, they get nothing beyond tuition, room and board, and books. The coaches get rich.
If the coaches earned the average pay for a full professor ($128,000 at Indiana University) and all that media, ticket, and licensing cash wound up somewhere useful, I would not be nearly as adamant about the athletes getting their taste.
And for those who argue that the majority of the athletic departments run at break even or worse, don’t believe everything you read. The transfer funds that bounce from the athletic department to cover expenses in other departments are determined entirely by the school itself.
If Sterling State University decides it should pay $250,000 to cover the cost for the marching band performing at halftime of football games, that’s what it pays. If the same school decided the next year to pay $1.3 million for the same expense, that’s fine too. The point is that the schools can control their expenses however they like to show the financial result of their choosing.
Opponents say that a trust fund established for players that collects and distributes fees for image dispersals are little more than a platform for bidding for recruits, and the rich will exploit the system to get richer. If Alabama guarantees that a recruit will receive $500,000 when he graduates, how could Purdue compete?
That differs from the current system how? For exactly which recruit can Purdue win a recruiting battle with ‘Bama today?
The reason this is such a contentious and unending debate is that for every reasonable point on either side, there is a counter. So the outcome will go to the side which is right, and adults being paid to their value is right.
The reserve clause was correctly abolished over the reasonable protestation of baseball owners in the 1970s, and universities’ ownership of personal licensing will meet a similar doom.
If NCAA president Mark Emmert really believed kids had no right to sell their image via autographs, Johnny Manziel would have been suspended for far more than the single half of football he lost at Texas A&M.
Twenty years from now, college football fans will wonder what all the ruckus was about.
[Ed. note: this debate is complicated enough to fill many books, and boiling it down to 700 words is impossible without missing some substantial points. The key is that the athletes and universities are playing a game wildly rigged in the advantage of the athletic departments, and that is patently unfair. By the time even the smartest of the athletes figures out they have been hosed, their eligibility is exhausted and the potential gain for initiating a fight is not worth the effort. That is why Ed O’Bannon deserves our respect.]