NCAA inches toward paying student athletes

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WASHINGTON — College athletes are demanding more compensation from the NCAA, which has seen paychecks rise thanks to lucrative TV deals — and now Congress will probe how the NCAA is handling itself.

The NCAA is entering a financial stratosphere it has never seen before. Five of the six Bowl Championship Series conferences rake in at least $150 million in total revenue per year from broadcast rights, with the sixth, the Big East, entering a new contract for 2013.

No longer satisfied with just a scholarship, the players want a piece of the financial pie. Last week 339 players signed a petition asking the NCAA for grants and bigger scholarships. On Thursday the NCAA approved a highly touted reform that would give each one an additional $2,000 in scholarship money.

While it appears the NCAA may be listening, the extra $2,000 will be a mere blip on a university’s financial statement. And when National Collegiate Players Association president Ramogi Huma requested a meeting with NCAA president Mark Emmert to discuss the petition, he was denied.

The NCAA is not responding more substantively to its athletes because it doesn’t have to hear its players complain

“Since we’re not employees and we’re not a union, there’s nothing mandating the NCAA to listen to us,” said Jeff Locke, a UCLA kicker and one of the players who circulated the petition, in an interview with The Daily Caller.

Congress is beginning to even if the NCAA might not. On Tuesday, Illinois Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush will host a roundtable discussion on the state of the NCAA. Huma will be there.

So will Andy Schwarz, a managing partner at OSKR, a law firm based in California that specializes in sports, antitrust, entertainment and intellectual property. Schwarz says the NCAA is a “cartel.”

“It brings together 300-plus independent businesses called ‘colleges,’” Schwarz told TheDC, “and they agree collectively and collusively on a maximum scholarship. They are imposing this anti-competitive behavior on a market, and then they’re giving a take-it-or-leave-it offer to all the students.”

Meanwhile, limiting the amount of money a student athlete can make is actually costing the schools even more money to get the players they want.

“If you restrict people from getting paid a market wage, a black market will emerge,” predicted Toby Moskowitz, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. “That’s why you’re going to get cheating and all those other things.”

And when cheating is discovered, NCAA sanctions can cripple an athletic program.

“Losing Terrelle Pryor and losing Jim Tressel was massively expensively to Ohio State,” Schwarz added. “They’d rather spend every year a little to keep the product strong.”

Instead of spending on players to improve their programs, schools are spending on themselves. One of the most popular ways to lure recruits in this era is to spend millions on blue-chip coaches, stadium renovations and workout facilities.

Simply paying players could bring similar — or better — results for a fraction of the cost, advocates argue.

“If you take a school that wants to jumpstart its program, the most effective way would be to pay athletes directly,” Schwarz explained.

NCAA regulations prohibit athletes from earning salaries because it would void their amateur status. But if the rules suddenly changed, schools would be forced to adapt quickly.

“If it’s determined schools need to pay the money, we’ll find a way,” said Tom Schott, associate athletics director for Purdue University, told TheDC. Purdue is of the five schools whose players signed the NCPA’s petition.

Players, meanwhile, have few options and little leverage. Boycotting games could be one card the players hold. Huma said the NCPA has never advocated boycotts.

“You’d be in violation of your scholarship grant, so be careful what you wish for,” said Peter Carfagna, a Harvard Law professor who specializes in sports law.

Another option is for individual players to take a stand individually.

Players receiving scholarship money sign away their publicity rights, granting their school the exclusive right to profit from using their likenesses — even after graduation.

But before signing, a player can bring in an attorney to negotiate for the return of those rights after his or her college days are over.

“Would the school say ‘No, we don’t want you to play here because your rights are more important than playing here for a year?’ I don’t think so,” Carfagna told TheDC.

For the moment, though, those 339 college athletes are banding together. While there is no players’ association for NCAA athletes, the NCPA is serving as their voice.

Locke said after the petition was released, players “from schools across the country” contacted him in the subsequent 24 to 48 hours.

With growing support among student athletes and a trip to Congress on the horizon, Huma is optimistic.

“The fact of the matter is when you turn on the TV, you’re not going to watch the coach on the sideline or you’re not going to look at some administrator,” he said. “It’s a joint venture. The schools provide the platform. Neither can have a sport without the other at this point.”

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Kells Hetherington