The National Collegiate Athletic Association as an institution is a robber baron. No single individual is accountable for the Division I collegiate athletic system treating young men and women as veritable indentured servants for decades while its member colleges and universities, their coaches and the organization’s top administrators, have raked in billions of dollars through lucrative television contracts and apparel deals among other revenue streams.
Numerous people are complicit. Now the NCAA’s inequitable sham is on the verge of collapse, their stranglehold on nominal amateurism loosened like the buttons on a cheap shirt. The United States Supreme Court will soon rule on the NCAA vs. Alston case, and determine if college sports’ governing body can cap educational benefits.
There have been similar cases, such as the antitrust class action O’Bannon vs. NCAA lawsuit, filed by former UCLA star and NBA player Ed O’Bannon. It challenged the NCAA’s use of athletes’ likenesses for commercial purposes without consent from or compensation for the athletes. The NCAA vs. Alston case, the first involving the NCAA to reach this country’s highest court since the NCAA vs. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma in 1984, was argued before the Supreme Court this past March 31.
It was initiated by Shawne Alston, who played four seasons—2009 to 2012—as a running back at the University of West Virginia. During oral arguments conducted via telephone conference, the justices carefully considered both the restraints on benefits shackling college athletes’ ability to prosper from their labor and likeness, and the ramifications of what would amount to a free market system if the ceiling was removed.
Justice Clarence Thomas, in addressing NCAA lawyer Seth Waxman, noted there is a wide chasm between athletes’ compensation and coaches. “You put a lot of weight on amateurism,” said the characteristically reticent judge. “Is there a similar focus on compensation of coaches?”
To provide context, Nick Saban, the University of Alabama head football coach, purportedly earned $9.1 million from the school for the 2020 season and will make $9.5 this season. Conversely, quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 overall pick in last month’s NFL Draft and a three-year star at Clemson University, was officially paid nothing despite leading his team to the college football playoffs three consecutive seasons, winning the title as freshman in 2018. The Clemson football program generated roughly $50 million in 2019.
In contrast to Thomas’ observation and question, Chief Justice John Roberts contemplated that a win for Alston could dismantle college athletics as it stands today. “You pull out one log and everything’s fine, then another and another. And all of a sudden the whole thing comes crashing down,” he said.Which many agree is exactly what should happen.
During the 90 minutes of arguments, Waxman laughably asserted: “For more than a hundred years, the distinct character of college sports has been that it’s played by students who are amateurs, which is to say that they are not paid for their play.”
The last part of his statement was correct. Student-athletes are not paid. Waxman’s remark regarding college athletes being amateurs is a glaring paradox. Last Friday, Mark Emmert, who has been the president of the NCAA since 2010, and takes in a comfortable annual salary of around $3 million, expressed to the New York Times that he recommends the NCAA board approve rules by July 1 that allow athletes to earn money off of their name, image and likeness.
Let’s be clear, Emmert didn’t have an epiphany. His suggestion was compelled by multiple states enacting new NIL (name, image and likeness) laws that will go into effect this summer granting students athletes the right of financial gain. More states are set to pass NIL laws next year.
Yet, the plantation mentality of some lawmakers remains unwavering. In classic sharecropper fashion, last week, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed into law a bill that allows college athletes to profit from sponsorships and endorsements but permits colleges and universities in the state to take up to 75% of their earnings.