Monday, August 12, 2013

NCAA: Rules or Hypocrisy?

Yes, I’m ranting…again…

All right… If you keep up with the daily happenings in the sports world, then you know who Johnny Football is.  If you don’t, I’m sure you’re not alone.  Johnny “Football” Manziel is the quarterback for Texas A&M, for now…  Mr. “Football” has unfortunately stumbled into the cross-hairs of the NCAA’s Sauron-like eye.  Apparently, Manziel was paid $7500 for autographing footballs, jerseys, and other memorabilia for a broker… allegedly.  Of course, the NCAA’s cartel mentality considers this a HUGE no-no.  Now, the overlords have opened an investigation that could end Manziel’s collegiate career. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t a new story; actually, it’s quite common – and rather old.  Every year, the NCAA’s rules and actions are called into question when they go after kids for rule infractions.  In my opinion, there was a time when some of their disciplinary actions were necessary and justified.  Sure, actions against the University Colorado for using drugs, alcohol and sex to lure football recruits, got it.  Giving the Southern MethodistUniversity’s football program the “death penalty” back in the 1980’s… okay… I’ll give that one too you.  However, this ain’t the 80’s.  This’ ain’t your daddy’s college days and this ain’t your daddy’s NCAA.  Gone is the nonprofit organization from the early   Today, the NCAA is a billion dollar conglomerate with – according to NCAA – total annual revenue hovering around $11 billion. 
1900’s designed to give structure and reform to a handful of amateur collegiate athletic programs.

The NCAA’s revenue has grown substantially over the last 10 years thanks to television contracts, sponsorships, gate prices, and a cheap labor force.  And this alone may determine whether or not the NCAA (as it currently exists) will be around for another 10 years.

Johnny Manziel isn’t the first, but – as they say – it’s all about timing.  Today, the hyper-scrutiny of the U.S. economy is the new normal.  The gap between the haves and the have nots is higher than ever before.  The top 10% controls two-thirds of America’s net worth.  The average income of the top 1% rose 240% since the 1980s while the average wage remained the same.  On average, the top 1% makes $1.12 million annually.  And the President of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, makes around $1.7 million a year.  So, when the NCAA comes down hard on Johnny Football for allegedly getting paid for signing autographs and sports memorabilia, it raises the question about players prohibited from making money off of their own athletic success.  They receive nothing from the profits made by selling their gear; moreover, they receive no compensation for the use of their likeness.  To add insult to injury, they’re used to promote the school, the league and apparel by doing television and radio interviews.  They advertise by wearing the logos of corporate sponsors – even off the field or court.  The serve as school recruiters and spokespersons to promote and sell a product based – in large part – on their blood, sweat and tears.  And see almost nothing in return. 

Now some folks will question whether it’s the player’s gear or the schools gear and they’d have a point.  They would, that is, if it wasn’t for the fact that even the NCAA uses the players name when selling their gear.  This hypocrisy was pointed out by ESPN’s Jay Bilas:

"How ironic that “Official Store of NCAA” sells Johnny Football shirts... Or, a coincidence it’s No. 2 with “Football”?"

Bilas pointed out that if you go to the NCAA shop and search by the name of your favorite player you get the player’s school jersey and number.  That means the NCAA is making money off the NAME and likeness of the player.  They’re even selling jerseys under the names of suspended players and those not even in college anymore.  It’s hard to argue for amateur status when the NCAA makes billions off of the work of the athlete.  BTW, you should know that since Bilas’ twitter barrage the NCAA has removed the search feature from their site.  (Update: NCAA has changed their policy on selling college jerseys.)

To be clear, this isn’t a “you should pay college athletes” rant.  While I do believe you should, this isn’t about payment.  No, this is about fairness.  Reggie Bush was stripped of his awards and accomplishments, the USC football program lost scholarships and forfeited their games, and Bush was banned from campus all for taking money.  The school was punished for not putting more effort into monitoring Bush’s relationships since Bush was “high-profile” and “High-profile players merit high-profile enforcement.”  However, they had no problem supporting and profiting Bush’s high-profile when they put him on the cover of EA Sports’ NCAA Football 07.

The list of players is a long one: Manzile, Bush, Terrelle Pryor, etc.  Pryor and Ohio St. were punished when Pryor profited off his own success.  Pryor sold autographs and memorabilia in exchange for tattoos and cash. And that’s the principle issue here.  The schools can exploit the images of their athletes, everyone from the State, the school, the coaches, the sponsors, and the NCAA can profit from the personal success of the players, but the players can’t profit off or their own hard work and efforts.  It’s one thing to not pay them; it’s another to tell them what they can do with their personal items and persona.  BTW, Pryor’s Big 10 championship ring just sold for … on eBay.  Go figure. 

This is also the central issue at question in the NCAA Student-Athlete Name & Likeness Licensing Litigation (aka O’Bannon v. NCAA).  From sbnation:

[O’Bannon v. NCAA] is an antitrust lawsuit brought by former UCLA Bruins basketball player Ed O'Bannon against the NCAA for using the likeness of past and present players in a variety of products, including the EA Sports college video games. The strange case name is due to the fact that the O'Bannon case was consolidated with one filed by former Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller, in which Keller alleged that EA Sports was using his likeness and that of his former teammates in its video games.   O'Bannon alleges that the waiver the NCAA requires athletes to sign forking over their names and images for use by the organization is a "contract of adhesion," or a contract signed without negotiation. When the NCAA and EA Sports create a game with O'Bannon's likeness, the former player alleges, they are conspiring to set the value of his likeness at zero, when that likeness could potentially draw more from another game developer on the open market.

The plaintiffs group amended this case in July when it added active college athletes to their case
against the NCAA.

It’s pretty clear to me that any argument about “amateur status” has pretty much been strangled and buried under the University of Maryland’s Comcast Center.  And while I do understand the need to have some limits in place, to assume that everyone surrounding an athlete can sell his or her autograph, but the athlete can’t is a little more than most reasonable people can swallow.  According to Shane Hinckley, Texas A&M’s assistant vice president for business development, the school’s profit from retail sales almost doubled going from $32 to $60 billion.  The university is expanding it stadium, applications submissions are up, recruitment has picked up, and all while Johnny Football is expected to stand to the side and watch, as others get rich off his talent.  Nah, I can’t say I blame him and the others for putting something in their own pocket.  After all, they are the ones putting their health on the line week in and week out.  At the end of the day, an added chair in the classroom doesn’t begin to match the “fair market” value of some college athletes.  It might be a good time for the NCAA to rethink their business model.  Taking a little less and still making a billion dollars might be a better than the alternative…  whatever that may be.
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