I guess a college education isn’t worth what it used to be. A popular notion these days is that a college diploma is not worth the amount of money – and subsequent debt for most students – it takes to obtain it. I don’t agree with that assertion, for many reasons, but that’s not really the point of this column. What I’m going to comment about is whether college student–athletes should be compensated above and beyond the free education and other perks many receive. This is certainly not a new issue, but recent developments point toward a major shift in how such amateur athletes may be viewed and treated moving forward. A front-page story in Tuesday’s Kansas City Star detailed a $20 million settlement between the NCAA and former major college student-athletes for using their likenesses in video games. The settlement comes on the heels of a recent $40 million settlement between video-game maker EA Sports and the Collegiate Licensing Company and former players whose likenesses were used in games.
Those two settlements probably do not bode well for the NCAA as it defends itself in a lawsuit brought against it by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon. In the trial that began in California this week, no settlement is being sought. Rather, O’Bannon’s suit is asking the court to allow student-athletes to make money based on their status as prominent players, which, of course, is not allowed under current NCAA rules. This would allow players to profit in such areas as autograph sessions, uniform sales, etc. That such lawsuits are being filed and settlements being forged is not surprising, given the enormous amount of revenue the NCAA generates and the burgeoning sentiment that athletes deserve a slice of the pie. Of course, they are already getting a slice; they just want a bigger one. Like many of you and millions of other Americans, I have paid tuition and all the ancillary costs of a college education for my kids. It was my choice and I was fortunate to have the means and ability to do it, but it certainly was not cheap. And, of course, there is no way to put a figure on what that college education will be worth to my kids in their working years and decades ahead. Prominent major-college student-athletes who take advantage of an athletic scholarship get such an education free of charge, minimum, and many get much, much more. In the afore-mentioned KC Star article, it was reported that the NCAA is touting recent research that states an athletic scholarship may be worth up to $120,000 annually when factoring in “goods, services and future earnings.” My guess is that such an estimate is a little low, especially in reference to the big-name college athletes. Many of these players move on to lucrative professional contracts and/or endorsements. They are able to do so because they entered into a covenant with the NCAA. Would the majority of American consumers know who Johnny Manziel is or care what he does were it not for the stage that was provided for him by the NCAA and the Texas A&M University football program? The NCAA, in partnership with mainstream media, made Johnny Football famous. Due to that exposure, which Manziel could not have constructed by himself, he is set to make millions, whether he is a successful NFL player or not. That said, I understand the sentiment that many former and even current major-college athletes harbor – this is America and I am entitled to promote myself and make all the money I can, period. Big-name coaches are paid big bucks (see Alabama football coach Nick Saban and Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari), why shouldn’t I be paid likewise? In the open market, that is certainly the case and the mantra that this country’s free enterprise system is built on. But big-time sports – even at the “amateur” college level – are not the open market. It’s an exclusive club, owned and operated by big business. And big business makes the rules. In the case of the NFL, NBA and yes …. major college football and basketball, a paramount rule is this – the players are not bigger than the game. Whether the court in California rules in favor of O’Bannon or not, this will not change: the game makes the players, not the other way around.
Lee Stubbs is owner/publisher of The Citizen. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by calling 858-5154. Follow him on Twitter @leejstubbs.