For all those waiting on another podcast, I apologize. Been moving around Southern California these past couple weeks, but should be settled soon and ready to record. Got some good ideas brewing
An Inside Look Into the NCAA
Every year high school student athletes across the nation sign the National Letter of Intent (NLI) in order to indicate which college they will attend. The letter in essence is a non-negotiable contract between the prospective student athlete and a school within the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to guarantee athletics financial aid on behalf of the school in exchange for attendance at the school listed. In recent years this has turned into a national phenomenon highlighted by ESPN’s all-day coverage of a day referred to as National Signing Day which is the first day a high school senior can sign the NLI.
Kai Parham, a former University of Virginia linebacker, was initially supposed to be the first player ever to sign his NLI on live television in 2002. He opted to announce his decision through a chat room instead. He now feels that the televising of this event forces many players to make light of the situation.
“I don’t think guys think about it,” said Parham. “The letter in and of itself is nothing more than just a letter of intent for a lot of guys; it’s not an actual contract. I think the average high school player doesn’t think about the business side of football. To them it’s just football.”
Other pundits agree with Parham including Marc Isenberg who wrote The Student-Athlete Survival Guide which helps athletes make the transition from high school to college.
“I don’t understand why the media spends such an inordinate amount of time celebrating such a one-sided deal,” said Isenberg. “What other deals do we have in our world that are so in favor of one party, and then we tout it like it’s a good thing?”
What often gets lost in the hoopla of National Signing day is that the NLI is a voluntary agreement that prospective athletes are not required to sign. The NLI assures student-athletes an athletics scholarship for one full year, often with the understood intention of renewing it for four years. That being said, universities are not required to renew scholarships past a year and can even dictate which schools a player can or cannot transfer to. Moreover, the NLI has provisions that are contingent on the player being admitted to the university, something that Isenberg said schools can exploit.
“[The NLI] is very one-sided,” said Jeff Fellenzer who teaches Sports, Business and Media in Today’s Society at the University of Southern California. “It’s written in a way that favors the institution. And it’s written in a way that makes it sound as if there was bargaining done and that the parties that sign, the athletes, are fully in agreement with the terms that are laid out. It’s not fair, it’s weighted heavily on the side of the school and it doesn’t really look out for the best interest of the athlete.”
The NLI also has provisions that specify that a player is signing with the university and not the program, which can give leverage to the schools.
“Every aspect of recruiting suggests the exact opposite so it puts athletes in a position where they sign with the program and it provides all the rights to the institution,” said Isenberg. “If something materially changes, the coach leaves or is fired, or there is an NCAA investigation, the actual NLI says that only the handing down of NCAA violations would be terms to void the NLI so it really puts student athletes in a really precarious position.”
Numerous attempts to reach the NCAA were unreturned.
The NCAA and the Collegiate Commissioners Association (which provides oversight of the NLI), often point to the fact that the NLI is voluntary for all student athletes. In recent years there have been a few players who opted not to sign the letter, such as University of Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight who was a highly-touted basketball recruit. Knight signed an aid agreement committing the University of Kentucky to him, but not Knight to the school. Nevertheless, it is generally only the high-profile recruits who have enough power to dictate terms such as Knight did.
Isenberg has worked with a number of athletes and their families as well as spoken to a group of recruits educating them on the terms of and provisions within the NLI. His main intention is to provide information, and he never tells athletes or their families not to sign the letter.
“The ace in the hole has always been if there’s a wide-sweeping lawsuit, that could be a game changer,” said Isenberg. “The O’Bannon case very well could be that. It could change the dynamics forever.”
The case that Isenberg is referring to is O’Bannon v. NCAA, which is a class-action lawsuit filed by Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player. The lawsuit is testing the NCAA’s use of images of former collegiate football and basketball players in a variety of products such as DVDs, photographs, games that are replayed on channels like ESPN Classic and video games. The video games portion of the suit also includes current players.
“No one here is challenging the ability of the NCAA and the number of conferences and schools to broadcast those images and sell merchandise,” said Jon King, one of the lead attorneys for the plaintiffs. “But the issue really is once they leave, have they lost their rights forever in any of the new products that might continue to be sold and are sold sometimes decades after the player has left school.”
Numerous attempts to reach the legal representation for the NCAA were unreturned.
O’Bannon has since been joined by 20 other plaintiffs, including former Arizona State University and Nebraska University quarterback Sam Keller who initially filed a lawsuit against the NCAA and Electronic Arts (EA), the game manufacturer which puts out such video games as NCAA Football and NCAA Basketball. The popular video game series have been around since 1994, and though they have never included the specific names of players, EA is being accused of using the likenesses of current and former players. The lawsuit contends that EA fills out the rosters of Division I football and basketball teams with the same jersey number, height, weight, build, home state, skin tone, hair color and hair style as the corresponding players on the teams.
“I do remember going into my first camp when they came out with the new NCAA [football game]. The images looked like myself, my teammates, all of our hairstyles, skin color,” said Parham. “I definitely felt like I should get paid. I felt like it was a breaking of the agreement that we signed because I don’t feel like they were allowed to actually license and use your likeness to make any sort of money.”
“The main issue there is has the NCAA and its members gone too far in licensing current players to be used by this for-profit entity Electronic Arts who manufactures the video games to create brand new products and sell them,” said King.
What this and the other portions of the lawsuit call into question is are collegiate athletes fairly compensated? The general response by the NCAA has been that athletes receive an education paid in full, a figure sometimes estimated at $200,000. King said, however, that in the lawsuit they are attempting to prove that the academic experience of a collegiate athlete, especially one who plays football or basketball, is not akin to that of a normal student.
“Football and basketball players are different,” said Isenberg. “Not just because they happen to play a sport that generates revenue, but from the practical standpoint that we put them on the road, they play more games, they travel more, they have increased media demands.”
Many athletes like Parham have expressed that much more is expected of them than the NCAA-mandated maximum of 20 hours of activity time per week.
“For me it was 40 to 50 hour job a week plus school,” said Parham. “It wasn’t like I actually had enough time to study. So the education that you get, the educational experience is definitely lessened. You have guys who can’t take certain classes because of schedule conflicts. You have guys who are really bright, but also don’t get an opportunity to do certain classes just because the workload is too much.
“The process is to keep guys eligible, not to allow them to excel as students.”
When Parham enrolled at the University of Virginia he was planning on studying accounting in the McIntire School of Commerce. The business school, which is consistently ranked as one of the best in the country, is one of the reasons he chose to play at Virginia. Due to time constraints with football he was forced to switch his major to African-American and African Studies.
Parham said that a number of his teammates were also in time-intensive programs such as engineering and finance, but were forced to switch majors as well.
“It’s not that it’s not an education, but it certainly may be a different type and it certainly may not lead to the same type of vocational type of skills that would be available simply because of the massive time commitment which is no surprise,” said King, citing research done by Robert and Amy McCormick, professors at Michigan State University. “The players are just not living the normal student life.”
The compensation called for in the lawsuit could be in the form of cash, although King suggested that other payments could be used such as educational credits for players to finish a degree or get post-graduate training
Any type of compensation for collegiate athletes beyond the scholarship and small stipend that is afforded to them has notoriously been a taboo subject because of the amateurism tag which is applied to them.
“I don’t think anybody disputes the issue that the players don’t get anything when their images are used forever,” said King. “So I think what will really be on trial so to speak ultimately is the issue, is there something special about this amateurism notion that protects the NCAA and allows them to basically collect all the money and not share it?”
“It’s totally professional sports for everyone minus the athlete,” said Parham. “They don’t receive any compensation, but everyone else gets paid.”
King, Isenberg and Fellenzer all compared the amateur status of college football and basketball to the Olympics, which at one point disallowed professional athletes as well as paying Olympic athletes.
“You’re probably losing your amateur status when you’re 10, 11, 12 years old playing in those travel teams in basketball,” said Fellenzer. “You’re getting free sneakers all the time playing with those teams. Essentially you’re not really an amateur at a young age because you’re being compensated whether it’s merchandise or gear.”
Despite its amateur status, college sports is a big business. For example, the NCAA recently announced an agreement with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting for more than $10.8 billion over 14 years for the television rights to the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. The former president of the NCAA Myles Brand received just over $1 million in compensation in 2008 according to tax returns. That same year the NCAA’s revenue less expenses was more than $56.5 million. The NCAA is a non-profit organization.
The individual schools also receive money from memorabilia including replica jerseys of current and former players. The University of Virginia re-released Parham’s jersey in 2010, and though he graduated in 2006 he is still excluded from endorsements.
“It is clearly a growing revenue stream,” said King. “Companies like Steiner Sports have deals with for example Notre Dame and produce commemorative photos, mounted items, that type of thing, and as college sports continue to become more and more popular those things grow.”
Meanwhile, college athletes are notoriously scraping by from month to month, partly because having a job during the season or even offseason is not realistic given the time constraints. The compensation called for current players with respect to video games, according to King, is nothing that would be much of a game changer, but would help players out with a few extra plane tickets for family members to watch games or help pay for groceries.
“You have a lot of guys who don’t have anything,” said Parham. “It’s very subsidized, cheap labor. These guys can’t go out for a cheeseburger with their girlfriend, it’s ridiculous. ”
In order to change the way the current system works, many feel that the NLI needs to be restructured and that there should be a member from each party (the athletes and the NCAA) negotiating, just as with any other contract. Certain practices such as using collegiate athletes for essentially free endorsements would be one of the first things addressed. King also mentioned the possibility of setting up a free market system and competition amongst schools.
“USC should be able to say, when players leave we offer this type of royalty arrangement if their images are used,” said King. “UCLA should be able to compete. So players can decide knowing the deal going in.”
While this idea was shot down by Fellenzer and Isenberg, the consensus is that there should be ongoing discussions about how to fairly compensate high-profile collegiate athletes. Time for change could be sooner rather than later with the O’Bannon lawsuit moving forward.
“Make no mistake; no one here is trying to end college sports,” said King. “Everyone enjoys it and wants it to succeed. It’s just overall what would be a relatively minor adjustment in terms of getting some fairness, and life would go on.”