“Student-athletes shall be amateurs in an intercollegiate sport, and their participation should be motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental and social benefits to be derived.”- NCAA Division I Manual
College athletics may look simple. It is just another facet of the education industry—for now.
Just like any business organization, a university’s athletic department has revenues and expenses. The money comes in via donations, ticket sales, and conference revenue sharing; it goes out via coach and staff salaries, scholarships, and operational expenses. All of this supports the student-athletes, the ones actually playing the sports.
These student-athletes have been the center of attention recently, and not just for what they do in their respective sports. Currently, student-athletes receive payment in the form of “grant-in-aid” (GIA) scholarships, which is generally the sum of tuition, mandatory fees, housing, and textbook costs. While some may argue that this is more than adequate payment for student-athletes, critics of the current system—including the plaintiffs in the NCAA litigation—say that students should be able to earn money above and beyond the scholarship amount based on their monetary impact on the university.
After all, according to the recent National Labor Relations Board decision, college athletes are, in fact, employees. And if they can therefore unionize and, for example, seek more extensive medical coverage, why can they not be compensated for their athletic services?
And why can a student-athlete not personally profit from the revenue that he or she brings to the school? Many schools, for example, sell jerseys with actual players’ numbers. Or why could a football player not profit from the use of his likeness in a video game or advertisement when the school itself often sees extraordinary profits from those means? Three athletic departments—Ohio State, Alabama, and Oklahoma—saw over $20 million in profits in 2013, and not a single athlete saw a single penny of those profits.
The premise in the O’Bannon case is along those lines, and it is well-publicized. O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player, brought suit alleging that the NCAA profited unjustly from the use of student-athletes’ names, images, and likenesses in commercial advertisements, merchandise, and products. That case is, at the time of posting, awaiting a decision after the trial concluded on Friday, June 27th.
But even after O’Bannon is decided, appealed, and decided again, the NCAA will face another wave of litigation. Since March, six class-action complaints have been filed, each with a recurring theme: the NCAA is violating federal antitrust laws and illegally capping the value of scholarships and preventing further compensation of student-athletes. The damages sought include class-action damages, injunctions, and the appointment of an antitrust compliance monitor.
What might college sports look like if the NCAA loses these cases? That is anyone’s guess. Athletes will most definitely be paid if that happens, in one form or another—the plaintiffs in O’Bannon suggested setting up trusts for each athlete and depositing apportioned revenue into the accounts, able to be accessed upon graduation or leaving school. There will almost certainly be major ramifications were athletes to be paid beyond grant-in-aid, such as a decrease in coach and administrator salaries, cutting teams to avoid financial insolvency, and perhaps most importantly, Title IX concerns.
The NCAA is facing an onslaught right now, and it does not appear that college sports’ governing body will have any time to rest. Former student-athletes seem out for blood, in the form of widespread drastic changes to the business model of college sports.
Take a good look at college sports as they are right now, because if even one lawsuit is successful, the landscape of college athletics could be dramatically different in the near future.
Eli Marger is a rising 2L at Wake Forest, and a graduate of the University of Florida with a B.S. in Sport Management. He has interned for ESPN and the UF Men’s Basketball team, doing statistical analysis for both.