March Madness is tipping off, but in another court, lawsuits that could decide whether NCAA players should get a share of the billions they generate are heating up.
As the NCAA’s Division One Men’s Basketball Championship, or March Madness, begins, questions of amateur status and whether college players should get a share of the billions of dollars in proceeds the NCAA and the schools receive from their play are set to be settled in federal court in New Jersey. This trial and three others have the potential to redefine college athletics in the United States.
J.J. Moore, a basketball player for Rutgers University, and football players Martin Jenkins of Clemson University, Kevin Perry of the University of Texas – El Paso, and William Tyndall of the University of California, Berkeley, are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the NCAA. Five of the nation’s most prominent conferences — the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big 12, the Big Ten, the Pac-12 and the Southeastern Conference — are also listed as co-defendants in the lawsuit, which alleges that the defendants are running a “cartel.”
“Even the most casual observer of these two sports can see it,” said Jeffrey Kessler, the lead lawyer for the four athletes. “There’s no semblance that it’s anything but a business except for this idea of ‘Let’s not pay the players.’”
Marketing of the NCAA’s Bowl Championship Series/College Football Playoff and March Madness is a multibillion dollar business, with CBS and Turner Sports reportedly paying the NCAA $11 billion for 14 years of television rights. ESPN is reportedly paying $5.6 billion over 12 years for the rights to broadcast the College Football Playoff, and the NCAA receives millions in licensing and likeness fees for its players to appear in advertisements and video games.
The NCAA argues that college players should play the game for the love of the sport and not for financial incentives. By monetizing the college experience for student-athletes, the NCAA argues that the quality of education for these students would be diminished.
“Amateur competition is a bedrock principle of college athletics and the NCAA,” the NCAA stated on its website. “Maintaining amateurism is crucial to preserving an academic environment in which acquiring a quality education is the first priority. In the collegiate model of sports, the young men and women competing on the field or court are students first, athletes second.”
Eligibility for participation in NCAA-sanctioned athletics depends on the athlete not signing a contract with a professional team; not receiving a salary, prize money or gifts beyond actual educational costs for participating as an athlete; not trying-out, practicing or playing with professional athletes; and not signing with an agent. Players who leave school early to play professionally are banned from playing on a collegiate level should they return to school.
Supporters of the amateur system argue that paying athletes is impractical under Title IX of the U.S. Code. While Division I men’s basketball and football are profitable, most college athletics are not. Proceeds from the basketball and football programs go toward underwriting other athletic programs. Under Title IX, any attempts to pay the athletes of one sport at a university would require the university to pay the athletes of all sports played under the school’s athletic program.
Opponents of the system argue that in regards to college football and basketball, the amateur system is nothing more than “price-fixing,” capping student-athlete compensation to tuition, fees, textbooks and room and board — negligible costs that do not require the university to take a loss in revenue and would otherwise likely be met with student financial aid. As schools negotiate larger television deals, there is a general sense that colleges are willingly recruiting and working the student-athletes without due compensation.
It is also argued that amateurism in sports is an outmoded model. The Olympics abandoned its amateur-status requirement in the 1990s for all sports, except boxing and wrestling. The Amateur Sports Act of 1978 established that a national organization cannot have more stringent rules for association than its international counterpart, which cleared the way for athletic endorsements by amateur athletes.
However, most agree that there must be a fine balance between protecting the athletes’ right to be compensated for their efforts and protecting the primacy of the student-athlete’s education.
The other suits addressing the NCAA and its definition of amateurism include a possible appeal by the National Labor Relations Board for football players at Northwestern University who wished to be recognized as a union that can bargain for pay and lifetime benefits for sports injuries. Additionally, Ed O’Bannon, a former power forward for the University of California, Los Angeles, is suing for a share of television revenues for the use of his likeness. Shawn Alston, a former running back from West Virginia University, is arguing that the university violated anti-trust laws by capping athletic scholarships below the actual cost of attendance.