Nothing raises the ire or blood pressure of those in positions of power in college sports more than a challenge to their carefully constructed system of control over the talent, the lattice of prohibitions, regulations, and rules that ensnares athletes in a web of wage suppression.
The hive-mind mentality dictated by the NCAA and carried out by the schools is at the core of the college sports industrial complex.
Now, the state of California has thrown a metaphorical Molotov cocktail at the self-serving structure of college athletics where coaches, athletic directors, athletic departments, and NCAA executives reap the free market rewards, not the actual talent. California’s Fair Pay to Play Act was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom on Sept. 30. Our nation’s most populous state has the radical idea that college athletes should be able to profit from endorsement deals and their own name, image, and likeness.
A state known for surfing wants to end the serfdom of college athletes. What a novel concept in a country that worships at the altar of capitalism unless it involves college athletes. We can stop promoting the false choice between getting an education and being properly compensated for one’s ability. They are not mutually exclusive goals as the NCAA’s precepts would have you believe.
This law has a chance to be the most notable mark California has left on college sports since John Wooden’s UCLA men’s basketball dynasty. The California law prohibits the NCAA from banning a school from competition if its athletes have received remuneration for the use of their name, image, or likeness. These are all big no-nos now in college sports that lead to ineligibility. The law still bars schools from paying athletes beyond the current structure.
The law won’t take effect until 2023, but other states could move sooner, forcing the NCAA’s hand. North Carolina is considering a similar measure, and so is South Carolina.
Bill SB 206 is armageddon for those feasting at the top of the college sports cartel. The predictable braying from the NCAA, which sent a letter to California legislators decrying the measure, and sanctimonious college coaches arrived at SR-71 supersonic speed. The NCAA said the bill “would remove that essential element of fairness and equal treatment that forms the bedrock of college sports.” LOL to NCAA and fairness.
While mocking California’s fiscal challenges, Washington State football coach Mike Leach said allowing athletes to capitalize on the same principles of capitalism that wallpaper Saturdays with college football television inventory would “destroy college football.” No, it would just destroy a glorified sharecropping system that benefits the schools and the NCAA.
If a never-ending facilities arms race filled with monuments to excess and outsized coaching contracts that look like the GDPs of small nations haven’t killed college football, this law won’t either. It will just give the work force, err, student-athletes more agency. That’s the real threat here. Coaches such as Leach and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, who also fulminated against the bill, don’t want players to be able to get out from under their paternal thumb.
There’s no better job in America than pious, patriarchal, highly paid big-time college coach. You’re showered with money and worship and don’t have to share either.
The sanctimony here over players being able to profit is suffocating. Swinney, who has led Clemson to two national championships in the last three seasons, agreed to a 10-year, $93 million contract in April. Clemson is a public university. Swinney should be obligated to pay some of that as royalties to Deshaun Watson, who moved Swinney and Clemson into the college football penthouse.
Alabama emperor Nick Saban just got a $100,000 bonus for his school being in the top quarter of Southeastern Conference schools in the NCAA’s Graduation Success Rate (GSR). How about dividing that money up among the guys who graduated while working for Saban? Never forget that when Alabama won its first national title under Saban in 2009, Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram referenced “the organization” in a postgame interview.
The iconoclastic Leach signed an extension in January that pays him $3.75 million this season and $4 million per year from 2020-23, plus a one-time $750,000 retention bonus at the end of the 2020 season. His contract calls for rolling extensions that guarantee he always has five years remaining on his deal, according to a Newsday database of college coach compensation. He also gets a country club membership and a $25,000 bonus for every win he gets against rival Washington, among other perks.
When I watch a college football game on ESPN, which paid a tidy $7.3 billion for the rights to the College Football Playoff, I don’t see them promoting the coaches sporting khakis and age lines. I see them promoting players such as Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.
Plus, the whole anachronistic system is built on a lie. As explained in Taylor Branch’s excellent 2011 opus on the NCAA in the The Atlantic, the term student-athlete was invented by the NCAA as a legal defense against paying out a workers’ compensation claim filed by the widow of a college football player who died because of a collision in a game in 1955, Ray Dennison. It wasn’t about the virtue of amateur athletics. It was about getting the right verdict.
Until a lawsuit from former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon compelled it to stop, the NCAA was happy to profit off the names, images, and likenesses of college football and basketball players in video games and other products without paying those players because they knew there was real value there. In 2014, a US district judge ruled that violated antitrust law.
There is undoubtedly value in getting a free education, as anyone saddled with student loans can attest. But that doesn’t make it equal value.
Sometimes college ends up being the height of an athlete’s popularity and marketability, the most opportune time to capitalize on their skills. Just ask Johnny Manziel.
Manziel was at his peak as “Johnny Football,” the swashbuckling, money-sign-flashing, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback for Texas A&M. He became an icon, embraced by rappers such as Drake and praised by LeBron James. Manziel could have endorsed any product he wanted back then, but NCAA rules forbade that from happening. Instead, it was a big deal when a memorabilia dealer said he paid Manziel $7,500 to autograph helmets in 2013. Now, his football career is on life support.
Women’s college basketball still enjoys greater exposure than the WNBA. Breanna Stewart’s endorsement opportunities while playing for juggernaut UConn could be better than those playing in the WNBA.
Chris Webber enjoyed a tremendous NBA career as a five-time All-Star. But the height of his cultural relevance remains as the frontman of Michigan’s Fab Five, a touchstone collection of talent. In college, Webber was the most marketable basketball player on the planet outside of Michael Jordan. (Webber, who accepted money from a booster, was at the center of rules violations by Michigan that vacated the Fab Five’s 1992 Final Four appearance.)
More recently, Zion Williamson was a phenomenon last season for Duke before being the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. Zion’s performances often led ESPN’s “SportsCenter” over those of professional athletes. It was national news when the Nike sneaker he was wearing blew out.
Why couldn’t Zion capitalize on his popularity by hosting a satellite radio show bearing his name like a certain deified Duke basketball coach does?
Luckily, Duke doyen Mike Krzyzewski sees the light where some of his football counterparts don’t. Coach K recently came out in favor of the California Fair Pay to Play Act. He said he hoped it could be implemented on a national level.
The reality is that some of the more talented and coveted players in college athletics are already getting paid, illicitly by boosters, sneakers companies, and other shady actors.
But it would benefit everyone to have a legitimized system for financial compensation that’s out in the light and the free market.
Plus, in this day of viral videos, athletes who don’t benefit from the exposure of major college football or college basketball could capitalize on worthy feats and fleeting fame.
California dropped the Big One on the NCAA, seismic change when it comes to college athlete compensation. It’s long past time for the system to allow the workers to be economic movers and shakers. too.