The past summer was the most turbulent in NCAA history. Scandals about improper benefits hit a number of high-profile athletics programs, including the football teams of Ohio State and the University of Miami, and the lure of lucrative media deals spurred many universities to switch conferences.
For years, the NCAA has argued that it would taint the amateur experience to pay college athletes, particularly Division I football and basketball players, beyond what they receive in grant packages covering tuition, room and board. But that case has become harder to make as college sports has developed into a very big business. The NCAA and its major conferences collect more than $700 million annually in new revenue from television contracts, according to a study released this week by Ellen Staurowsky of Drexel University. Meanwhile, college students are free to make as much money as they wish playing the cello, designing dresses or starting Web businesses.
Student-athletes are the stars that everyone pays to see, and across the country, they are starting to ask why they shouldn’t get a portion of the considerable proceeds.
On Monday, an advocacy group called the National College Players Association released a petition with 300 signatures from football and basketball players at Arizona, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Purdue and UCLA. The athletes called for a cut of new revenues from the television contracts of the NCAA and the Bowl Championship Series conferences. In addition, they asked for insurance against sports-related medical expenses and the creation of an “educational lockbox,” or trust fund, with money available to them after graduation if they abide by NCAA rules. The NCPA plans to circulate the petition at more schools.
“The sleeping giant is waking up,” said NCPA President Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA football player.
Mr. Huma will represent the concerns of student-athletes this Tuesday at a congressional panel organized by Rep. Bobby Rush (D., Ill.) in response to the recent scandals in college sports. The nine speakers will include a former sports agent and the mother of an injured scholarship athlete.
A group of basketball players also spoke last week for the first time as members of a new group led by Marc Isenberg, a financial consultant who wrote “Money Players,” a business guide for aspiring athletes. The Student Basketball Forum’s teleconference attracted current collegians and recent graduates who are now playing in the NBA. They pledged to recruit more members through social media.
In the background of this new activism is a 2009 class-action lawsuit filed by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon. He is suing the NCAA for using players’ likenesses in commercial images and videos after they graduate. Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell added his name to the lawsuit this month. The group is seeking a share of the profits from the NCAA’s media contracts.
“The Association owns and licenses the copyright” on photos and videos of its championships, NCAA general counsel Donald Remy said in a statement. “The NCAA does not restrict the plaintiffs from financially capitalizing on their college accomplishments.”
“They’re really standing up for the rights of future generations as much as the past players and current players,” said Jon King, an attorney for the players. “It would take a superhero type of character to be in the system and challenge it at the same time.”
On Thursday, the NCAA’s Division I Board of Directors passed a reform agenda that allows schools to increase aid to individual athletes by up to $2,000. The proposal was supported by NCAA President Mark Emmert, who said that the figure was meant to “more closely approach” the full cost of college attendance, including expenses like personal fees and transportation costs.
On Mr. Emmert’s recommendation, the board also permitted schools to extend single-year scholarships into multi-year grants. Some believe that this policy change could encourage current athletes to discuss NCAA policies more frankly, without fear of losing their scholarships as retribution.
One question is whether college sports will have an equivalent of Curt Flood, the Major League Baseball player who fought the league’s reserve clause in the 1970s. By seeking free agency, Mr. Flood brought about a new era and forever changed his sport.
“I don’t see the Curt Flood coming out of college,” said C. Thomas McMillen, a former congressman who played basketball in the NCAA and NBA. “I see it as guys that left college.”
College athletes haven’t banded together like this since 2000, when the Student Basketball Council formed under the National Association of Basketball Coaches. The committee was chaired by Duke’s Shane Battier, a well-respected All-American and Academic All-American.
The SBC was announced to much fanfare at the Final Four in April, and about 40 players gathered in Dallas later that year. They promised to discuss compensation at future meetings, but the group only met once. Mr. Battier said he was “naive” to think that the SBC could incite change.
At the time, Mr. Battier wanted colleges to cover the full cost of attendance, he said, “so I could take my girlfriend out to pizza and a movie on the weekend.” One of two NBA players invited to Washington, D.C., next week, Mr. Battier now believes in the Olympic model for amateurism, allowing athletes to profit from their own marketing rights. NCAA rules prohibit college athletes from signing endorsement deals or accepting money from boosters.
But given his own experience, Mr. Battier doubts that current NCAA athletes could spark major reform. “They wouldn’t know how to unite,” he said. “One of the questions I got as SBC president was, ‘Are you guys a union? Would you threaten to boycott a game?’ That would never happen.”