Let me make something clear: I am a huge supporter of college athletics. The years I spent at Michigan State University were four of the best of my life, which is why I’ve personally donated to the university. I experienced everything college has to offer. On the court, my team had lots of success, making it to two Final Fours, and I received many individual accolades, as well. I was led by Coach Tom Izzo, who remains my mentor, friend and someone I consider family. I arrived on Michigan State’s campus as an 18-year-old kid and left a 22-year-old man — a college graduate prepared to take on the world.
But my passion for my university also fuels my desire to take on the unjust NCAA rules restricting college athletes from profiting off their likeness. I’ve seen firsthand just how backward these rules are.
During my freshman year, we made it to the Final Four and were headed to Detroit, just 100 miles from my hometown of Saginaw, Mich. It was a dream come true; I was going to play on the biggest stage in front of my family. But it quickly became a nightmare, because I was allotted only three tickets to the game, meaning my grandma couldn’t attend the game. My grandfather had died three months prior, and I felt that seeing me play was what my grandmother needed to get out of the house and feel alive again.
It absolutely broke her heart when I told her she couldn’t attend. I had no money to help. If I tried to sell my autograph or my jersey, I’d be suspended by the NCAA. If someone bought my grandmother a ticket, I would have gotten in trouble, too. How is that fair? Thankfully, a family member, National Football League linebacker LaMarr Woodley, gave her his extra ticket and escorted her to the game.
This is just my own experience. I saw players deal with much worse, such as difficulty getting something to eat or families at home not making ends meet. With our practice schedule, classes and other commitments, there was no time to get a job. Many players were left struggling.
Universities, on the other hand, are bringing in millions of dollars from their sports teams. In the 2016-2017 school year alone, the NCAA took in more than $1 billion in revenue.
Last season, Duke’s Zion Williamson, an incredible talent and terrific personality off the court, was a big money maker for the NCAA. You couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing one of his monster dunks. Immediately after declaring for the NBA draft, Jordan Brand, a subsidiary of Nike, signed him to a long-term, multimillion-dollar deal. Not bad, considering that it only cost Duke University a college scholarship, about $75,000 for one year. And it didn’t cost the NCAA a dime.
On Feb. 20, something bizarre happened: Williamson’s foot broke through his shoe during play. He fell to the ground, and everyone held their breath. It looked bad. Thankfully, he eventually returned to the court, but a serious injury would have been a disaster, especially with a pro contract and endorsement deals months away. Current NCAA rules would have meant that he would walk away with nothing.
I describe the NCAA as a dictatorship. If you’re an NCAA athlete, it controls everything you do. And if you don’t follow its archaic rules, it will prohibit you from playing. Brian Bowen, a young man from my hometown, was one of the top college basketball recruits in the country. But because his father took money in a pay-to-play scandal, Bowen was ruled ineligible for college ball. That’s not fair. Bowen did make it to the NBA, but his career could have been over before it even started.
People argue that changing these rules will destroy college athletics. Those are just scare tactics from people who want to keep players from being able to make money that’s rightfully theirs. This bill does not say the NCAA needs to pay athletes. It simply allows college athletes to endorse products or sell jerseys. It won’t slow the money that pours into the NCAA; in fact, it might keep players in college longer.
I’m forever proud to be a Spartan. Visiting the campus is a feeling like no other. But that doesn’t mean we can’t fix something that’s broken. I appreciate California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), the California legislature, LeBron James and everyone else who has spoken up to finally move this issue forward and do what’s right.