NCAA must support athletes’ rights

by Mike Heral

The unionization movement by college football players is misguided. Advocacy via the NCAA already exists. The problem is, it’s a role the NCAA neglects. Now that the football awaits kickoff, the NCAA must fix its game.

The NCAA’s purpose reads: “Student-athlete success on the field, in the classroom and in life is at the heart of our mission.” Sadly, it’s just poetry. History weighs words against actions, and the NCAA’s purpose is clear from three anti-student-athlete positions taken within the past year. Specifically, the NCAA:

• Opposed a lawsuit seeking restitution for concussion-related injuries.

• Opposed a lawsuit seeking compensation from the sale of merchandise bearing either a player’s jersey number or likeness.

• Revoked the athletic eligibility of a collegiate wrestler because he sold two of his own songs on iTunes.

Those positions aren’t consistent with advocacy. Instead, they frame the NCAA as a student-athlete punisher. Its defense is it upholds amateur status, but “amateur” doesn’t mean physically, mentally and fiscally broke. The confluence of union petitions and lawsuits affords the NCAA the opportunity to correct its course and track towards student-athlete advocacy.

Perhaps it has played the role of a cranky dad for so long that it’s forgotten how to be supportive, so I ever-so-humbly offer these steps as a guide.

First, all student-athletes on a full athletic scholarship must have all expenses paid. Bizarrely, full athletic scholarship recipients still pay almost $3,000 per year in school-related expenses, according to a joint study by the National College Players Association and Ithaca College. The NCAA counters that student-athletes can obtain additional financial aid to cover the gap, but the NCAA should leave the joke telling to Stephen Colbert.

Second, remove employment income restrictions. Currently, full athletic scholarship recipients can’t earn more than $2,000 per year from all non-athletic scholarship sources. That’s bad policy, especially when considering that expense gap.

Third, let student-athletes receive royalties. The NCAA needs to settle the royalty lawsuit and remove the restriction barring student-athletes from selling memorabilia. It’s ridiculous that I can profit from selling a football autographed by San Diego State football player Donnel Pumphrey, but he can’t.

If the NCAA doesn’t want to give royalties to student-athletes, it needs to stop licensing merchandise bearing any current player’s number and likeness, but there isn’t a valid reason to go there. A student-athlete ought to profit from gridiron glory in the same manner that I can get paid for writing a published article.

Finally, cover all athletics-related medical expenses, and then take it one step further. That is, all student-athletes ruled medically ineligible should receive a full scholarship until a degree is earned. Otherwise, the student-athlete was just an athlete, and that inches the argument closer toward employee status and unionization.

I can understand why the NCAA fears that classification as it takes the “student” out of the “athlete,” and the NCAA loses its raison d’etre.

Contrary to common belief, college football doesn’t yield enough profit to support paying player salaries across the board. While teams in the top five Football Bowl Subdivision conferences raked in more than $1.1 billion in profit from the 2012-13 season, other FBS teams struggled to break even, according to data supplied by Aragorn Technologies. For example, SDSU’s football program paid $1 million more in expenses than it earned that year.

Unionization movement figurehead Kain Colter told the Chicago Tribune the movement isn’t about “pay for play,” but others disagree. Jadeveon Clowney told talk show host Jim Rome that he would have played another season if he was paid. How will universities pay player salaries when 40 percent of FBS teams—and all but one non-FBS team—reported a profit of fewer than $2 million? Let’s not forget that universities argue football pays for non-revenue producing sports so any profit is theoretically passed to those programs.

Further, paying players destroys the current competitive balance that allows even “mid-major” universities such as SDSU to talk of winning a national football championship without invoking irony.

The NCAA is the sole organization that can prevent college athletics from tumbling into fiscal imbalance, but it can’t do it by continuing to punish the students playing its games. It must expand its student-athletes’ quality of life. It is, after all, in the mission statement.