Show me the Money; Is it time to start paying Student-Athletes?

by Dr. Michael Richard

February 23, 2010. Remember Ed O’Bannon?   He’s the guy that starred on the basketball court for the University of California at Los Angeles, leading the Bruins to a 1995 national title.  Now Mr. O’Bannon has taken his game to a different court, this time taking on the uber-wealthy and powerful  NCAA in a San Francisco Courtroom.  See, Mr. O’Bannon thinks it unfair that a multi-billion dollar corporation continues to make money off his image, years after his departure from UCLA, and years after he is able to make any money off his skills.   Even though he has not played for the Bruins in years, the school continues to profit using his image in video games and the sale of sports apparel, money that far outstrips the cost of his school tuition.  According to the New York Times, the NCAA makes more than $4 billion dollars alone on licensing deals, though the paper suggests that this figure may not be the total revenue generated from such agreements.  And his claims may very well have merit, as  the Judge presiding over this matter refused to dismiss the case, much to the chagrin of the NCAA’s high priced mouthpieces.  Michael McCann, a professor at Vermont Law School who specializes in sports law, called Monday’s ruling a “setback” for the N.C.A.A. He said that the case would probably be followed closely by members of Congress who were interested in the N.C.A.A.’s tax-exempt status.  Couple this with President O’Bama’s suggestion that Congress look into the revenue sharing “agreement’ of the B¢$ , and it sure sounds like the NCAA lawyers are going to be busy in the near future.


College athletics is a multibillion dollar venture making its money using indentured servants.

And the  problem is bigger than most of us are aware.  One internet article I read, entitled The NCAA is the Greatest Scam of the 21st Century highlights the severity of the problem.  From this article, the author detailed the situation at Florida State University where allegations were made that the university was choosing their players’ majors (three quarters of their African-American athletes are in social science majors, evidencing major clustering), and misdiagnosing the student athletes as learning disabled in an effort to make millions of dollars and win football games.  According to Dr. Boyce Watkins, as many as 65% of the student athletes at FSU have been deemed disabled, a stunningly disproportional figure as compared to the student population as a whole.  The result is that these thoroughbreds are being pushed through what should be rigorous academic programs in order to fuel the universities’ billion dollar business venture, and the universities are doing this by barely compensating their pool of slave labor.  His point is that, if the schools are carrying athletes through educational programs as a pretense to develop athletes and generate millions of dollars, then how exactly is the NCAA any different from the other major professional sports leagues that compensates their players?

And there are other cracks in the NCAA amatuer student shell game.  The reaction from the student-athlete is predictable; find a way to skirt the rules and get paid anyway.  Just this past week, meetings were held in Tempe Arizona to discuss the University of Southern California problem; athletes turning up with possessions unbecoming the poor student purportedly living on a modest income.  Allegations of a house and a car bought for the family of  a star running back, Reggie Bush, were believed to be the subject of more than a whole day’s worth of testimony at the hearings.   Also discussed were the inappropriate benefits for basketball star O.J. Mayo and the allegations that another star running back’s girlfriend was seen driving a tricked out SUV that simply wouldn’t fit into the average student aid type budget.

And U.S.C. isn’t alone in this matter.  Few will forget the case of Maurice Clarrett, the star running back for the 2002 National Champion Ohio State Buckeyes.  Among his many indiscretions, Clarrett once reported that his SUV was broken into with hundreds of compact disks being stolen from his expensive car.  And just this week, when Elijah Fields, linebacker from the  University of Pittsburgh was kicked off the team, he posted photos on the internet of boxes of money saying “who knew you could make so much money playing football,” leaving the impression that this star player was compensated for his brief and rocky stay as a Pittsburgh Panther student-athlete.  These situations are hardly isolated incidents, and it’s equally clear that the NCAA has been looking the other way in order to protect its moneymaker (here’s to guessing that the very profitable U.S.C. gets off with the proverbial slap on the wrist despite several full boxes of legal documents detailing violations of NCAA bylaws).  These are just a few of the many stories evidencing NCAA violations by student athletes that at the surface live at or near the poverty line while the NCAA lines its pockets with ever increasing sources of revenue.   It’s time for this exploitation to stop.


When Pitt LB Elijah Fields was kicked off the team, he posted this picture on the internet with the quote “Never knew Football was gonna get me all this money Sike I Knew haha!”

With the coaches, commentators, and athletic directors earning gaudy six and seven figure salaries, the only “official” tangible benefit extended to the athlete is free college tuition, a drop in the proverbial bucket when assessing NCAA revenue.  While exact revenue figures are not always known (private institutions like U.S.C. need not disclose their revenue figures for example), what information is available to the public is startling to say the least.   For 2007-08, the University of Texas was the number one revenue grossing NCAA program at a whopping $120.28 million dollars, followed by The Ohio State University at $117.95 million, and the University of Florida third with $106.3 million in total revenue.  Compare these figures with the cost of annual tuition at some of the major universities.  According to a University of Texas at  Austin website, tuition costs for an out of state public university range from about $15,000 to $36,000 dollars annually).  As  a for instance, this site lists the cost of a public education at The Ohio State University for an out of state student at $22,278 per year, meaning that each out of state student-athlete is compensated to the tune of 1.8% of the total gross revenue generated by the football program.  What we have here ladies and gentlemen is one group of market actors stealing the fruits of another’s labor, precisely what the Thirteenth Amendment was meant to prohibit (Hint: the 13th Amendment was the result of tearing a country apart and ending the South’s cheap pool of labor).  Expect the O’Bannon Court battle to get messy as a multibillion dollar behemoth is poised to protect what it has stolen.

Simply put, it’s time to start paying our student-athletes above the table so to speak for college athletics.

I will not pretend that the issue is an easy one, as several problems inherent with paying college athletes immediately come to mind.  Do you count the value of the scholarships as part of the salary compensation (if so, schools like Stanford would be able to offer less incentives over the cost of tuition as part of the overall compensation)?  And how much do you pay the kids?  Should star players be offered more compensation (if not, there is a strong likelihood that under the table type arrangements will continue in the recruiting game)?  Where do schools from conferences that generate less revenue get the funds to pay their student-athletes?  If such funds are not available, will the big boys be forced into a revenue sharing deal, and if not, how will the smaller schools compete?   And what of Title IX, which essentially requires a balance for all sports offered by a university that takes public funds?  Ostensibly this will require a school to pay all of their student athletes equally, to include non-revenue generating sports, unless somehow the NCAA can earn some sort of exemption for college football (seems like an argument can be made that players should be paid in proportion to the amount of income that sport generates).   These are just some of the potential problems that arise when considering salaries for college athletes.  However, these details can be ironed out; there is more than enough money in college athletics to make sure that all of the various players are handsomely rewarded for their efforts.

No doubt the NCAA will continue to shape the issue in terms of protecting the illusory image of the amatuer athlete, a sword used by college football’s governing body to protect its revenue streams.    As Jon T. King, one of Mr. O’Bannon’s lawyers put it, ““[w]e think the N.C.A.A. will defend this case saying they are protecting amateurism and trying to prevent excess commercialization.  That’s their mantra in regard to the big-business aspect.  We think their hypocrisy will be fully exposed once their numbers are put in the public eye.”

If this is truly the concern of the NCAA, then I have a proposed solution.  Pay the players in a trust fund, one that they could not begin to draw upon until after they graduate.  This would mean that players would not be getting paid while they were actually playing the games, but would eventually be compensated fairly for their efforts and the risks associated with playing these often dangerous games.  This would have the added benefit of allowing players to accrue income in the event that they are injured, compensation for future medical bills they may one day accrue but not be able to afford.  Schools could also get creative and include insurance benefits for athletes that get hurt, paying them lump sums for future income lost due to injuries on the job (the rest of us call this worker’s compensation, a benefit many Americans presently enjoy).  This would be particularly valuable for the star player who has a legitimate shot of one day earning millions of dollars professionally should he not suffer a serious injury while playing the game for free. This might also encourage a few of the kids to stay in school and earn their degrees, putting the institutions back in the education business, a novel concept.  The point is, it’s time for the exploitation of one group of people at the expense of another to stop.  Our capitalistic system in America is born out of the notion that one ought to be compensated fairly for their talents and their hard work; such an arrangement is impossible when one group bakes the proverbial pie while the other’s role is to simply devour it (and lest you think this is just another management-labor dispute over how revenue is to be split, keep in mind that universities make their money from tuition that we pay and from government grants and donations.  In other words, their revenue streams are simply given to the universities by us).

I am not going to pretend that wealthy millionaires will voluntarily part with their money.  Millionaires rarely do.  And while Mr. O’Bannon’s legal battle promises to get messy, this lawyer suggests that there may be some merit to the student athletes’ anti-trust claims, as evidenced by one Federal Court’s unwillingness to throw the lawsuit out, despite the arguments made by the best lawyers the NCAA could buy.  As Jon King said to the New York Times: “We think the court and public will be shocked at how crassly commercial the sale of all these items are.  It’s not a public service.  It’s purely to make money.  In every other walk of life you enter, you have to share the proceeds.”  A legal win for Mr. O’Bannon will be the first key step in ending the exploitation of student athletes by opportunistic universities that are essentially running professional sports leagues without the hassle of employee compensation.

Good luck Mr. O’Bannon.

(images courtesy of and

Categories: College Football

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4 replies

  1. Years ago, The New Yorker had an article that summed up the thought that college athletes, once hard to discern from the general student population, now look so different from that group that they appear not to belong. I totally understand your thought that student athletes, who make a bundle for the university, should be privy to part of that bundle. However, paying the student athlete will further the notion that college is not a place to grow and develop as a person, it is merely a place to grow and develop as a worker. I am of the mind that the liberal arts education is not a waste and that a university education should be the place where a young adult grows intellectually and academically. Perhaps rather than paying the student athlete, we should separate professional athletics from college sports. My husband thinks that we should do away with athletic scholarships and go the way of the Ivy League and military academies at which students who participate in athletics should be first and foremost STUDENTS. Apart from the damage that we do when we take an inner city kid from somewhere like Watts and put him at a place like USC (think O.J.) without any preparation or willingness to help him adjust, I wince at what we have done to universities. They are now huge, competitive businesses cutting corners and recruiting to ensure profits and healthy bottom lines. It’s an end justifies the means world and nowhere is this truer than in college sports. If we want to teach kids something, we will begin with the idea that college is a place to grow as a person and student.. Sports are recreational and should be kept to their own arena.

  2. Lyla, one side of me completely agrees with you (all other students are there to learn and not make money) and one part of me is completely sickened by the way the universities are using these kids to line their pockets. Your perspective is from that of the universities (and to a lesser extent society as a whole) and mine is from that of the college athlete. It would be one thing if the money was funneled back into education programs to improve the university for everyone–we both know that is not what is going on here (mostly white old men are getting wealthy). Often in life one needs to choose between pragmatism and idealism (and quite frankly I usually pick the latter). I am sure that my stance in this article given previous political discussions does not suprise you. I guess I have also accepted the fact that many of these kids are going to colleges to train for the NFL because the NFL will not let them play until the equivalent of their junior year in college, and thus, have no intention of earning a degree in the first place. The universities, the players, and society all tolerate this, and the only benefactors (with the exception of a handful of kids each year that earn a career in football) are the schools and the NFL (who has figured out a way to get someone else to train their employees without competing with them). Do you have other ideas as to how to “fix” this problem?

  3. Mikey–this was dated 2/23. it is now 3/16. GET ON YOUR HORSE and post another magnum opus. That high-powered machinery within your mind can crank ’em out faster than 1 per month, i know THAT.

    (as a suggestion: how about a post regarding the inevitable return to dominance of U-M football?)


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