The latest skirmish in the fight to eliminate the indentured servitude known as “student-athletics” is flaring up in California. There, the state legislature on Wednesday passed the Fair Pay to Play Act, which would allow college athletes to be compensated for the use of their names, images and likenesses. You know, like regular Americans.
The bill now sits on the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who can sign, veto or ignore it. (If Newsom does nothing, the bill becomes law after 30 days.) Meanwhile, the NCAA, which has more money than Nick Saban and more lawyers than Rick Pitino, is digging in for another staunch defense of amateurism.
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The NCAA Board of Governors sent a letter to Newsom, warning him not to sign the bill. Essentially, what the board said was this: If California colleges and universities begin paying their athletes then the schools will be violating rules of NCAA membership; the implied threat is that violators would suffer consequences; one consequence might be ineligibility for NCAA competitions.
In other words, if you bite the hand that feeds you, you’d better get lawyered up as you prepare to kiss March Madness goodbye.
This particular skirmish is a hot one, but it is only the latest in a lengthening line of legal battles. The NCAA takes in around $1 billion in annual revenues — and that doesn’t count what is generated by the Football Bowl Subdivision playoff, which is controlled by FBS conferences. The whole of the big-time college sports industry is estimated to generate, on an annual basis, $14 billion. That’s about the net worth of the Sackler family, makers of OxyContin.
Although it is a farce to claim amateurism, the NCAA must cling to the notion as an existential reality. Cheap labor is part and parcel of the business model.
The famous Ed O’Bannon suit — where the plaintiffs sought compensation for the use of their names, images and likenesses, just as the bill in California attempts to codify — turned out well enough for the NCAA. Although O’Bannon technically won the case, the NCAA got off the hook by agreeing to allow its conferences to provide additional education-related benefits, like computers or grad-school scholarships, to athletes. This allowed the NCAA to steer clear of antitrust violations.
It’s another farce. The premise is that big-time athletes have education as a primary goal. Some of them are serious students, of course. But if you think Division I athletes — in any sport — are spending more time studying in the library than they are practicing, lifting weights and watching film, well, bless your pure heart. There is a reason Clemson’s football facility comes with an indoor slide, bowling alleys and a miniature golf course. Just like casinos, management doesn’t want anyone of monetary value to leave the building.
As Mike McIntire — a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter from The New York Times who wrote the book "Champions Way: Football, Florida and the Lost Soul of College Sports" — said in an interview with Vox: “This is really a giant multibillion-dollar commercial entertainment platform functioning under the guise of a tax-exempt educational pursuit.”
The 65 schools in the Power Five conferences keep getting richer. They have introduced an age of $1 million assistant football coaches. Everyone else keeps getting poorer. The players’ lot hasn’t changed much beyond greater access to miniature golf.
The pending legislation in California is only the most recent sign of this plutocracy being challenged. The NCAA is trying to delay, saying its board intends to modernize rules to better serve its student-athletes. It is not discussing specific proposals. OK.
Something has to give at some point. The most oft-predicted beginning of the end game includes an act of Congress that threatens the NCAA’s tax-exempt status. Reportedly, the NCAA will spend $400,000 on Washington lobbyists this year. That price may go up, but the NCAA can afford it. It pays its president $3 million per.