DESPITE EFFORTS to maintain an illusion of amateurism, the reality of commercialism in college athletics is unambiguous and overwhelming. Television broadcast revenues of college sports have soared to nearly $2 billion a year, CNBC has reported. CBS and Turner Broadcasting have agreed to pay $10.8 billion to lock up more than a decade of broadcast rights to just the March Madness men’s basketball tournament. Yet the college players whom everyone tunes in to watch essentially don’t make a dime. It’s long past time for that to change.
For decades, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has artificially restricted compensation to a labor force — athletes — that generates billions in revenue while redirecting profits to athletic departments. The athletes aren’t paid because the NCAA has randomly defined what it means to be an amateur: They can accept certain things, like tuition, but not others, like royalties from jersey sales. You’re an amateur because you aren’t paid. You’re not paid because you’re an amateur. That’s the essence of the argument, and it’s looking increasingly hypocritical.
Consider two men, a songwriter and a quarterback. During his time as a Berklee student, John Mayer could have accepted paying gigs, released an album, even sold music rights to filmmakers. But 2012 Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel — whose team at the end of last season earned Texas A&M an estimated $37 million in media exposure — can’t profit from endorsement deals or sales of products bearing his name and likeness. A shot at going professional, together with scholarships, is supposed to be compensation enough.
And while musicians can continue working for decades, athletes have short careers. A player who stays in college for four years is probably giving a large percentage of his prime earning years away for free. He also risks serious injury, a point highlighted by the broken leg that befell Louisville’s Kevin Ware so gruesomely during the NCAA tournament. Ware’s recovering well, but if problems flare up later in life, neither the NCAA nor his alma mater is likely to be on the hook for additional medical care. It’s no surprise so many athletes drop out and head to the pros as soon as possible.
Even after athletes have left college, the NCAA apparently can maintain certain licensing rights in perpetuity. In June, a California judge is expected to rule on whether a case by former student athletes against the NCAA can move forward as a class-action suit. Lead plaintiff Ed O’Bannon had been working as a car salesman when he saw that video-game maker Electronic Arts was profiting off his likeness from his time on UCLA’s 1996 basketball team. Another plaintiff, Celtics great Bill Russell, claims they’re cashing in on his image from college games that took place a half century ago.
In the current system, almost everyone but the athletes seems to benefit — from athletic conferences to the admissions offices seeing spikes in applications. Retired UConn men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun’s $1.6 million salary once made him Connecticut’s highest paid state employee. His counterpart on the women’s team, Geno Auriemma, took that honor in March, signing a five-year contract that could be worth more than $13.2 million. There are similar examples around the country.
A concept of amateurism so patently unfair begs to be reconsidered. “The NCAA maintains its own, idiosyncratic, changing, frequently arbitrary, and often illogical definition of amateurism,” read an April report coauthored by economist Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College. The report concluded that the NCAA can afford to change.
Did America’s pride in Olympians such as Michael Phelps and Mia Hamm diminish when they signed endorsement deals? Did we love the Boston Marathon less in 1986, when it started awarding prize money, than we did when winners received only an olive wreath? Of course not. And nothing will change — except unfair policies — if we start compensating college athletes.
BY THE NUMBERS
Estimated revenue from merchandise related to college athletes in 2012
Warren K. Zola is an assistant dean of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.