Collegiate Athletics, the NCAA, and compensation. Are collegiate athletes really entitled to further compensation? By: Ebo Amissah-Aggrey

“Our team is worth 1.5 billion but it wouldn’t be fair to other students if we get a free hamburger?”

When Ohio State quarterback Joe Burrow sent this tweet out on September 21, 2017 there were mixed reactions.

The tweet which went viral, has now been retweeted over 13,000 times as well as garnering 38,000 likes.

Some applauded the quarterback for using his platform to bring attention to the larger topic at hand.

And of course, others were not too kind.

“I have $200,000 in debt. You get plenty,” one user said in a reply to the tweet.

But why was that there was so much backlash to the tweet? Was it just because it came from Burrow or did it speak to a larger issue at hand?

Over the past few years, the debate about whether or not collegiate athletes should be paid has ramped up.

These student athletes have worked their whole lives to reach the point where they have earned a scholarship to the university of their choosing.

And as a result, they have also helped the universities bring in money in the form of revenue and multi-billion-dollar TV rights deal.

So, when the WSJ puts out a story that Ohio State football program is worth $1.5 Billion, then how much are the players worth?

If you follow an NFL formula for paying players, then each Buckeye would be paid $482,559 a year.

If you follow an NBA formula for paying players, an OSU basketball player would be paid $925,354 year.

The concept of the term student-athletes has been the bed rock of the NCAA since its inception.

Students first, athletes second.

That’s the motto.

The motto also then perpetuates that student-athletes aren’t subject to anything further than a free education and minor some privileges outside of that.

But that is an idea that doesn’t sit right with some people.

“People saying that somebody doesn’t need any more compensation because other people have it worse doesn’t happen anywhere else in the marketplace,” said Burrow in an email.

When asked to comment about the nature of collegiate athletes being compensated and this proposed method of compensation, Ohio State university declined to comment.

“No need for me to comment,” said Ben Johnson, Director of media relations at OSU.

“You don’t hear anybody saying that Bill Gates needs to stop making so much money because there are other people who don’t make as much as him,” said Burrow. “This doesn’t happen anywhere else in our country. It is one of the only price caps in our economy.”

According figures provided by Ohio State Athletics, OSU athletics in 2015 brought in $108 million in total revenue.

The OSU football program of course led the way bringing $79,939,136 while in comparison, the basketball program came in a distant second bringing in $25 Million (Men’s $24,059,213 Women’s $1,002,566).

For contextual purposes, by bringing in almost $80 million in total revenue alone, the OSU football program accounted for 75% of the total revenue the athletic department brought in.

Essentially, the OSU football program is a professional sports franchise in terms of how much money they bring in.

So, what would it look like if they paid their players like professional franchises?

In professional sports leagues like the NFL, NBA and so forth there are agreed upon revenue splits between the owners and the players. These revenue splits, dictate just how much money is denigrated to be split amongst the owners and the players on a yearly basis.

In the NBA, there is a 50/50 revenue split between the owners and the players which makes things easy.

But in the NFL, the owners get 50 percent of the revenue and the players get less than half which makes things a little trickier.

Regardless of that, by taking the revenue figures provided by Ohio State athletics, and applying the revenue splits of professional leagues such as the NBA and NFL, there is then a point of reference that is created to respond to the question of just how much each player could make if they were compensated using the same pay structure.

For instance, by applying the NBA model to the revenue figures at OSU, the average payout is $487,433.75 to each OSU football player. ($39,969,568/82 scholarship players)

For OSU basketball players, the amount would be $925,354 per player for men ($12,029,606/13)

On the flip side, if the NFL model were applied, where owners get 50 percent of the revenue split and the players just get under 50 percent the number per player for the OSU football team would amount to $482,559.415.

OSU Men’s basketball using that same model per player, would be looking at $916,100. per player.

The reality of the fact though is that if you look at the total dollar amount value of the scholarships for football players in 2015 amounted to $4,061,067.

With each scholarship is being valued at $47,227 per football player. ($4,061,067/86 scholarship athletes).

There is a drastic disparity between the value of players in contrast to that of the proposed compensation method, but the idea in theory remains.

Burrow was poking fun at the situation with his tweet he sent out as previously highlighted above, but the larger topic at hand is one that is placed squarely on the idea of the value of student athletes.

“The thing that bothers me is the term student athlete. If we were truly students first then we would be treated as regular students,” said Burrow. “A regular student can go and profit off of their name and likeness but we cannot because we play football. I do not think that is fair.”

With these figures in mind about the notion of looking at collegiate programs as professional teams, the topic of paying collegiate athletes will not be going away any time soon.

In recent years, we have seen the conversation really heat back up. Some of that is attributed to the landmark ruling in the 2014 O’Bannon lawsuit ruling (a former UCLA player who sued the NCAA and EA sports for using his likeness without any compensation) but it’s also attributed to the fact that we live in an era where athletes are more vocal and forthcoming than ever before with the advent of social media.

“It does kind off bother me when people say, “stick to football,” said Burrow. Because nobody tells them “stick to working at the factory” or whatever they do for a living.”

Former Wisconsin basketball player Nigel Hayes was also among the most vocal players supporting the stance of paying collegiate athletes. Hayes publicly repeatedly called out the NCAA numerous times for the lack thereof regarding compensation for student athletes when they in fact helped bring in so much money to their respected universities.

“Yes, I am aware of the of top revenue sports at Ohio State and at most schools across the country are Basketball and Football. I think there are two ways that you can go about compensating the athletes,” said Burrow. “If you choose to flat out pay the athletes then you have to determine the athletes monetary value to the university and go off of that.”

Burrow is vehemently against the salary method of payment as previously highlighted above.

“I am against the salary method. What I think is best is for the athletes to own their own likeness,” said Burrow. “Right now, the NCAA makes us sign our likeness and names away saying that we cannot profit off of it. I think this lets the market determine our value through endorsements and commercials and things of that nature.”

It is to be said, that in the proposed salary method the issues of equality in terms of compensation become apparent when looking at other sports at OSU.

There are only three sports at Ohio State that make more money than they expense. Outside of football, Men’s and Women’s basketball every sport at OSU loses money.

The idea that athletes should be paid based on a revenue split model would not work in all situations because the money simply isn’t there for most other sports.

And even in the cases where you can apply revenue split model in per say Women’s basketball the amount is discernably lower than their male counterparts.

Women’s basketball, using the NBA model of revenue splitting would amount to $38,560 per player and that figure would slightly decrease to $37,789 when using the NFL model.

If that were the case, that would mean the Men’s basketball players would be paid almost $887,000 more than their female counterparts.

“I feel like that is way too much money for 18-21 year olds to have but it somewhat makes sense to me,” said Hunter Robertson, a former OSU Men’s soccer player.

Although Robertson, a four-year player/starter for the Ohio State Men’s soccer team and graduating senior understands the need for further compensation, he see’s things a little differently when asked about the issue of collegiate athletes being paid.

“These players are getting the TV deals for Ohio State and they are making all that money. and kids are getting hurt all the time,” said Robertson. “The only reason they are here is because it’s a gateway to the NBA or NFL so it somewhat makes sense but also it wouldn’t be fair to other sports like us to get that much money.”

Robertson, much like some athletes at OSU, isn’t really on a full scholarship like football players and basketball players are afforded.

According to Robertson, the coaches are in charge of divvying out how much scholarship money a player can get.

“The coaches decide on what they can divvy out but like if I wanted to go in there and talk to them like after last semester like hey I have been playing and starting every game since my freshman year, I want more scholarship money or I’m going to leave or something like that,” said Robertson. “I never thought like that because I enjoy being here but I could have bargained for more but that’s not something I wanted to do.”

Sometimes even the best players according to Robertson aren’t really on the scholarship that many would presume.

“My sophomore year, three or four kids and the captain of our team that year had book scholarships only,” said Robertson. “Zach Mason, Kyle Culbertson he was books and 10%. I think Zach was on 15. Culbertson was maybe our best player so it’s just weird how that kind of works.”

Even though coaches are in charge of divvying up scholarships, it does then leave out individuals who are also a part of the team to take out loans to cover cost of attendance.

“They just have to take student loans and stuff,” said Robertson. “Like there’s one kid on our team who is from Texas and not on anything so to avoid paying out of state tuition, his parents moved here. Dropped everything and moved their family so he could pay less in tuition.”

When asked about the practice of amateurism in the NCAA, Robertson has a simple answer.

“The way that I rationalize it as amateurism is that for me, we are here to go to school. If it weren’t for soccer that first year, I wouldn’t have gotten into OSU,” said Robertson. “We get free tutoring. I’m on book scholarships so I get free books and I can talk to my sport advisor anytime I want and they can help me talk to my professors so I can get some due dates changed based on travel and stuff like that.”

Robertson, who himself said if it weren’t for soccer he wouldn’t be at the university, is cognizant the opportunity he was afforded.

“When it comes to football, I definitely say basketball and football are no long amateur sports. But for me soccer is something fun that I am doing because I have practice and class and it takes away time to get a job,” said Robertson.  “If I’m not doing my homework at night, I’m so tired from practice in the morning, I’m so tired there’s no chance of doing anything else. So, it’s definitely a full-time job especially football and basketball making money for the school not getting reimbursed for it so even then they are going to school for free which not a lot of people can say”

Robertson when it’s all said and done, doesn’t think collegiate athletes being paid will happen anytime soon.

“I don’t think it’s something that’s going to happen in the near future,” said Robertson. “But maybe down the road there will be some changes that players could market themselves or the university will pay them based on their practices and maybe like a monthly or yearly salary type of thing.”

But he is optimistic about the prospect of the NCAA possibly making policy changes.

“I would like to see just maybe some policy changes so that players aren’t going to get suspended for an entire year because they sold an autograph yourself,” said Robertson.  “Maybe it’s that you can market yourself and the better athlete you are, you can make more money off yourself instead of the university paying the $900,000 a year just like the basketball situation.”

The idea of athletes being able to freely market themselves is one that isn’t allowed by the NCAA in any facet or form.

But it doesn’t stop the NCAA from freely commercializing and marketing athletes to media companies and advertisers who throw billions and millions of dollars their way to have access to their product.

So, how can the NCAA still promote the label of amateurism when they are freely marketing and commercializing off of collegiate athletes who frankly don’t have a choice but to sit back and watch?

“The NCAA likes to support the stance of amateurism and amateur sports and we aren’t employees we are student athletes and all this different nomenclature,” said Kain Colter, former Northwestern QB. “In our eyes and in the eyes of other people we are employees.”

Colter, in 2014, with the help of the College Players Association, an organization started by former UCLA football player Ramogi Huma, led a historic effort in 2014 to attempt to form the first ever collegiate union of players at Northwestern University.

For Colter, the unionization wasn’t just something that he randomly decided to support, it was something that he felt was necessary.

“That’s one of the huge reasons I started the Union,” said Colter in reference to players medical costs/injuries. “The NCAA doesn’t require schools to pay for not one penny of a player’s medical costs. And so, it’s really up to the school where players are stuck with medical bills during their playing time and the big problem is there is no medical coverage after your eligibility is expired.”

Colter’s first step? Prove that Northwestern players were employees. In his case, he successfully presented that the Northwestern players indeed were statutory employees and entitled under labor laws to have a right to collectively bargain and unionize. By doing so, he presented a case in which he proclaimed Northwestern players put in over 40 hours a week into the life of being a collegiate athlete.

The result of his stance led to director of the National Relations Board to actually agree with his stance carefully laid out with the help of CPA, that indeed collegiate athletes were employees of Northwestern permitting them to have the right to unionize.

Ultimately, the University petitioned the full board in Washington D.C. and the decision was appealed and the board, in Colter’s words “didn’t really want to touch it” and so that marked the end of the case.

“They didn’t want their jurisdiction so the consequence of that is that they didn’t say no,” said Colter. “They didn’t say it wasn’t possible for college athletes to start a union. That leaves the door open for schools down the line to go the same route that we did at northwestern.”

The ruling, although not entirely the outcome Colter wanted and fought for with the CPA, did give him some hope.

“It’s promising that the regional director gave the ruling that we had a strong case and that college athletes are employees and they should have these rights,” said Colter. And so, looking at it from that perspective, I think there is a great possibility that another school could follow in our footsteps and try to unionize.”

Colter did disclose that he had brief interactions/conversations with some schools and individuals in the past about unionization efforts after the case, but nothing in the end came of them.

In the end, although the Union efforts failed, Colter remains a clear advocate for a free market for collegiate athletes.

“I 100% agree with that payers should be allowed to have access to their value and what the street market operates and I think in a way a lot of these issues we are seeing in recruiting you see where they are hiring prostitutes try and entice player to come to the school,” said Colter.

Colter says by schools being enabled by apparel companies to do these types of things, there’s a clear complaint that apparel companies and schools are committing wire fraud.

“There are schemes to commit fraud and all these schemes are based off the economic harm the NCAA has due to the NCAA rules and to me rules of sales are illegal because you are restricting trade,” said Colter. “You are in a violation of anti-trust laws and you aren’t allowing a free market to operate.”

As Colter put it, what the NCAA is running is a Monopoly.

“They are working hard to make people think that this is amateur sports even at a time where the NCAA generates close to $12 Billion a year and players are essentially the players are walking advertisements for all these different commercial entities,” said Colter. “Whether it be apparel companies or Pontiac or Pontiac player of the game trying to award players performance on the field. Everything is being commercialized.”

“What the NCAA is doing is running a monopoly so they can reap all the benefits of all the commercialization’s of players in college sports.”

 

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