“It’s mind-boggling when some people claim that compensating college athletes would break the system.” — Ed O’Bannon in his upcoming book, “Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA”
The thought dawned on Ed O’Bannon after he bumped into Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany in June 2014 outside an Oakland, Calif., courtroom, where O’Bannon’s lawsuit demanding the NCAA pay athletes for using their images was being heard. Delany reiterated under oath that day his belief that paying college athletes such as O’Bannon, who starred playing basketball at UCLA, would result in the ruination of college sports.
At the time, Delany made a little more than $2 million running the conference Maryland migrated to that same year.
“But it gets better,” O’Bannon writes in the galleys I was provided. “Since the Big Ten has been rolling in TV dollars in recent years, Delany in 2017 earned an additional $20 million in bonus payments. $20 million. For a guy who doesn’t play. For a guy who . . . disingenuously warned journalists that my case threatened to make college sports unprofitable for schools.”
I generally don’t sound the pay-the-players call as a reform to college athletics. It’s too narrow a focus. Instead, I’ve argued for years that, more broadly, college athletes in the revenue-generating sports of football and men’s basketball should be treated like what they are: employees. They exchange blood and sweat for some sort of compensation, which we call a scholarship, just like a worker in an apparel plant makes their jerseys for a wage and benefits.
But the background against which O’Bannon’s book is being released cannot be ignored. It is a garish image of modern-day robber barons, disguised as commissioners, athletic directors, coaches and television executives, in the multibillion-dollar college athletic industrial complex. It cries for nothing less than full financial relief for athletes in top-tier college athletics, those who play the games we pay to watch on ESPN, ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and other major broadcast outlets.
To be sure, look at the firing and hiring of college football coaches the past few weeks that we in the media have reduced to a fun game we call the coaching carousel. It isn’t just the hiring of one coach at a record sum such as the $75 million over the next 10 years that Texas A&M gave Jimbo Fisher to leave Florida State. It is that so many of the hires are coupled with tens of millions of dollars in buyouts to make room for new hires.
Texas A&M paid its coach of the last several seasons, Kevin Sumlin, more than $10 million to clear out his office for Fisher. Arizona State stuffed $12.3 million into Todd Graham’s pockets to make him disappear before signing Herm Edwards as Graham’s replacement for $2 million a season over the next five years.
And so it went. At Tennessee. Arkansas. UCLA. Nebraska. Smaller schools such as East Carolina and Charlotte.
Yet colleges would have us believe they can’t find enough money under their seat cushions to pay salaries to the athletes who generate all that loot. Actually, they can. And did. A couple years ago, guilt-ridden as could be, the NCAA started paying travel expenses for the families of every athlete who makes it to a Final Four or college football playoff game. More than enough money is there.
“I think we’re going in the direction opposite of what would seem to be the moral and equitable thing to do in terms of a fair market,” Derek Van Rheenen, a PhD and former professional soccer player, told me from his Cal-Berkeley office where he directs its cultural studies of sport in education program. “That’s the trend.”
We’re accustomed to the exploitative nature of big-time college sports. It was confessed by the architect of the current college economic model, the late longtime NCAA executive director Walter Byers, in his mid-1990s memoir, immodestly titled, “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes.”
We can calculate it after understanding that college football and basketball players are human capital who produce not only value but, as Karl Marx observed 150 years ago in his seminal economics text, “Das Kapital,” surplus value. It is that additional profit college athletes generate between what their scholarships cost their schools and what their labor is really worth. A 2011 Drexel University study led by Professor Ellen Staurowsky, who went on to testify in the O’Bannon trial, hypothesized, for example, that “the fair market value of the average FBS [major division] football and basketball player to be $120,048 and $265,027.”
That was over half a decade ago. What might their value be going into this football bowl season, particularly those players on the four teams that will earn more than $6 million for their conferences by competing in the championship playoff that didn’t exist when Drexel crunched those numbers?
That’s why it isn’t enough that the richest schools — those in the so-called power five conferences of the Big Ten, Big 12, Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and Pac-12 — decided just a couple years ago to boost their athletic scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance. (And you thought an athletic scholarship did that all along, didn’t you?) It cost those athletic departments between half a million dollars and $1.5 million — a drop in the bucket — to do so. Their combined revenues are upward of $100 million.
That paying college athletes would kill college sports as we know them is a hysteria with which we should be familiar. It is not unlike what was warned of implementing Title IX, which assures women have the same athletic opportunities as men. It was said to be a law that would gut men’s sports. But almost 50 years later, football and men’s basketball are awash in money, and there are more teams than ever and more people not playing the game realizing benefits from their development. The financial excesses of big-time college sports are undeniable.
“We have to decide where we’re going,” Van Rheenen said. “If we’re going to continue down the road of commercialization and profit making in college sports, then we have to embrace that and basically say, ‘We acknowledge that we have a farm system here, we acknowledge that we are running this business that is encapsulated in higher ed,’ and really just stop claiming in any way shape or form that we are actually adhering to this amateur notion.
“Amateurism and the principal and the philosophy behind it have been gone so long in these big-time programs that it’s hollow for the NCAA, or the institutions, to talk about the amateur athlete.”
And it is absolutely insulting for the people who run this enterprise to suggest after another multimillion-dollar buyout of a coach’s contract that they can’t take care of the athletes like the athletes take care of them.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for the Post.