College sports: a counterfeit amateurism

By From page A6 | March 19, 2014

On your TV set Thursday morning, March Madness, also known as the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, begins in earnest.

Yes, it’s true round one opened with 68 teams on Tuesday. But four play-in games will have whittled the tournament down to the standard 64 by tonight. One of those fortunate schools will be awarded the national championship on April 7, after winning six straight games.

The players, who sell tens of thousands of tickets, jerseys, video games and other merchandise and who generate hundreds of millions of dollars in TV revenues during March Madness, won’t get paid a dime. Because college students are branded “amateurs” by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, all of their income goes to others.

A small number of players will go on to lucrative professional careers. But most top-tier college players will have their dreams dashed at the next level. And many of them will depart their schools with no degrees and little hope.

This year, the NCAA sold the broadcast rights to the “amateur” hoops tournament for $770 million. Total revenues, including ticket and merchandise sales, will near $1 billion.

Television ad revenues from the Big Dance in 2012 topped $1 billion for the first time. That is more ad money than the NFL ($976 million) or Major League Baseball ($354 million) generated that year in their post-seasons.

According to Forbes, college sports’ income amounts to $11 billion per year. Almost all of that comes from football and men’s basketball. Top-level college sports make more money than the NBA or the NHL.

In 2011, the University of Texas-Austin had revenues from its “amateur” sports programs of $163.3 million. A total of $95.8 million came from football, another $16.4 million from men’s basketball. Texas’ 2011 profits were $25 million.

Ohio State, with revenues of $142 million, was second. Its profits were $17.6 million. UC Davis ($25.6 million revenues) was 90th. However, the Aggies lost $1.4 million on that.

The coaches are one group who reap the benefits of the charade that college sports are played for the love of the game. Steve Spurrier, the head football coach at the University of South Carolina, recently signed an extension on his contract that pays him $4 million per season. That makes him just the fifth highest-paid football coach in the mighty Southeastern Conference.

The top four in the SEC are LSU’s Les Miles ($4.3 million), Tennessee’s Butch Jones ($4.86 million), Arkansas’ Bret Bielema ($5.16 million) and Alabama’s Nick Saban, who was scheduled to make $5.4 million, but recently got that increased to more than $7 million.

None of the five highest-paid coaches from the 2013 men’s tournament was on his way to the poorhouse. Mike Krzyzewski of Duke was No. 1 at $7.2 million per year, according to USA Today.

The next four in the 2013 tourney were Louisville’s Rick Pitino ($5 million), Kansas’ Bill Self ($5 million), Michigan State’s Tom Izzo ($3.7 million) and Florida’s Billy Donovan ($3.7 million). All of them but coach Krzyzewski made hundreds of thousands of dollars more in bonuses, because their “amateur” teams won a lot of games.

John Calipari, the University of Kentucky’s head basketball coach, whose team did not make it into the tournament in 2013, was paid $5.5 million.

Some top-level college coaches boost their incomes with speaking fees and endorsement deals. They believe in Adidas, Budweiser and Converse.

The players, by contrast, are strictly prohibited from receiving even $1 in endorsement money. If a player or his family member takes anything the NCAA calls “extra benefits,” the student-athlete will be ineligible to participate. His school also might be punished for a serious transgression of these “amateurism” bylaws.

The NCAA is determined to maintain the ruse that high-revenue college sports are not about money. Yet, as I see it, there would be nothing wrong with paying players some share of the income they generate.

Title IX requires that scholarships, facilities, tutoring, accommodations and so on given to male athletes must be proportionately given to female athletes. It’s not clear if it would be legal to pay Johnny Football a salary, while giving no extra cash to Vickie Volleyball.

One thing is certain about a male-female split: Men’s coaches in the big-revenue sports at most schools make a lot more than the women’s coaches. Title IX does not limit the amount USC or UCLA pays its football coaches.

My suggestion is that the NCAA drop its prohibition on extra benefits for athletes.

Some players, we often learn after the fact, accept handouts under the table. An agent will lend a kid $50,000. A booster will pay the rent on a house for a student’s poor parents. A kid will earn a few dollars selling a signed photograph of himself.

As long as the money is not coming from criminals or gamblers, I have no idea why such benefits need to be outlawed.

If Nike gave $75,000 to Brandon Ashley, a star forward from Oakland who played for the Arizona Wildcats this season until he badly injured his foot in a game, who would that endorsement harm?

When the championship game is played on April 7, I cannot guarantee that Harvard will cut down the nets. But I am already sure of this: The winners will be the non-players who pocket billions of dollars players generated for them this season.

— Rich Rifkin is a Davis resident; his column is published every other week. Reach him at [email protected]

Rich Rifkin

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