Relaxing amateur status key for players

Joey Kaufman
Ohio State Buckeyes defensive end Jonathon Cooper celebrates winning the Big Ten championship game in December. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]

Like most players of his generation, Ohio State defensive lineman Jonathon Cooper grew up on "NCAA Football," the popular video game from EA Sports.

“I loved that game,” Cooper said earlier this month.

His favorite team was the Buckeyes, which usually featured some of the best players. He reminisced about playing with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith and standout linebacker James Laurinaitis in virtual reality.

But the college football video game is mostly a fading childhood memory. EA Sports last produced an edition of "NCAA Football" six years ago.

The demise began in July 2013, when the NCAA decided not to renew its licensing contract with EA Sports, citing business concerns and mounting legal challenges.

A federal antitrust lawsuit, brought by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon years earlier, contested the organization's and member schools’ right to use players’ names, images and likenesses without offering compensation. The video game company also made a college basketball series.

“I was so mad when they got rid of it,” Cooper said, “because I was two years away from getting to college and I've always wanted to be in a video game. They should bring it back.”

The major hurdle to its return involves long-standing NCAA amateurism rules that prohibit players from profiting off their name, image and likeness. EA cannot pay college players to appear in the game.

But that could change. The NCAA formed a working group in May to consider allowing players to receive compensation for their name, image and likeness.

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith was named co-chairman of the group, which will supply a report to the NCAA's board of governors in October. Smith didn’t weigh in much on the issue, though he said in a statement at the time that it “will not result in paying students as employees.”

If he talks with Buckeyes football players, Smith is likely to find support for relaxing the rules.

Three seniors who were in attendance at Big Ten media days voiced support for allowing them to make money off their name, image and likeness.

“Being a college athlete, some people can get taken advantage of,” wide receiver K.J. Hill said. “But we definitely should be able to get paid, sign autographs for money and stuff like that. At the end of the day, we are bringing in a lot of money to programs, and it’s like, 'Why can’t I get $5?'”

As athletic departments have raked in more money this decade, largely due to the growth of TV rights deals, reform advocates contend that athletes in revenue-generating sports such as football and men’s college basketball deserve a larger share of the wealth. Ohio State reported revenues of more than $205 million to the NCAA in the most recent fiscal year, including nearly $111 million from its football program.

The NCAA has made some changes to give players more rights and compensation.

Since 2015, schools can provide athletes with a few thousand dollars in stipends for incidental expenses, covering the “full cost of attendance.” The benefits of a scholarship had mostly been limited to tuition and room and board. They are also able to give players unlimited meals and snacks.

But athletes still can't capitalize on their market value through endorsement deals, autograph signings or memorabilia sales. Rules prohibiting athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness are unchanged.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” Cooper said, before raising Zion Williamson, the former Duke basketball star, as an example.

Williamson, who became the top overall pick in the NBA draft in June, had become one of the more high-profile college athletes of the decade, with his highlight dunks spanning social media feeds.

“When you got a guy like that playing with Duke, and he doesn't get anything, it's like, why not?” Cooper said. “It's his name, it’s his likeness.”

Some critics point out that opening the door for college athletes to pursue endorsement deals, for example, would create a disparity in locker rooms, among other unanticipated problems.

How would a third-stringer react to a quarterback getting extra dough?

Hill countered that the dynamic already exists in the NFL, where players’ contracts and endorsements differ. Some rookies fetch larger signing bonuses, too.

No one in the trio of Ohio State players was more outspoken than safety Jordan Fuller. He spoke at length on the subject, arguing that players should be free to use their likeness for profit.

“I think the NCAA is very behind,” Fuller said. “Give me a good reason why not. I honestly can’t think of something. We were just going over that yesterday. Some of us have 300,000 followers (on social media). I think 27 million people watched the national championship last year. And all we’re getting is cost of attendance stipend. We can’t even sign some autographs for money.

“It doesn’t really make sense to me.”


Listen to the BuckeyeXtra Football podcast: