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Five myths about the NCAA

University of Florida players get ready before a college football game in Gainesville, Fla., in December. The Supreme Court ruled recently that antitrust law does apply to the NCAA’s rules about compensating student athletes.
University of Florida players get ready before a college football game in Gainesville, Fla., in December. The Supreme Court ruled recently that antitrust law does apply to the NCAA’s rules about compensating student athletes. (John Raoux/AP)
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The Supreme Court handed down a rare 9-to-0 decision in NCAA v. Alston on Monday that many believe will forever change college athletics. It was a narrow ruling confirming that antitrust law applies to caps the NCAA had placed on education-related benefits for student athletes, but both a majority opinion by Justice Neil Gorsuch and a concurring opinion by Justice Brett Kavanaugh warned sharply against the NCAA’s current way of doing business. The decision will shape forthcoming name, image and likeness rights for student athletes, keeping alive the debate over whether — and how much — players should reap from the more than $10 billion in annual revenue generated by NCAA sports programs.

Myth No. 1

For years, college athletics leaders have warned that increasing compensation for athletes would lead college sports to become professional sports, causing fan interest to wane. Even some former student athletes have shared their fears. Former college basketball player Cody J. McDavis wrote in the New York Times that “paying athletes would distort the economics of college sports in a way that would hurt the broader community of student-athletes, universities, fans and alumni. A handful of big sports programs would pay top dollar for a select few athletes, while almost every other college would get caught up in a bidding war it couldn’t afford.” Schools with more resources would attract the better talent, the theory goes, ruining competitive balance.

But that assumes there’s competitive balance today — and there isn’t. In the seven years of the College Football Playoff, only 11 teams out of more than 120 eligible schools have made it into the 28 available spots, with only four teams winning championships. In 2020, all 31 five-star football recruits committed to schools in the elite Power Five conferences, and 21 of 28 five-star basketball recruits did the same.

And at least some Americans show interest in paying student athletes. A February 2015 YouGov poll found that 34 percent of Americans believed that student athletes should be paid for the time they devote to their teams. In another poll later that year conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Huffington Post, 24 percent said the same. More recently, in a 2021 Seton Hall Sports Poll, 49 percent of Americans said student athletes should receive compensation in addition to scholarships and cost-of-attendance stipends — funds to help cover the full costs of attending college, including travel and other expenses — for participating in revenue sports, with “avid fans” supporting that idea by 68 to 26 percent.

Myth No. 2

EA Sports stopped releasing its popular “NCAA Football” title after the 2013 edition when the firm settled with former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon, who had sued the NCAA in a class-action antitrust case in 2009, demanding that the organization pay college athletes for allowing their likenesses to be used in video games. And now O’Bannon is blamed for the cancellation of the football game and a less-popular basketball one: ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit blasted him in 2016, saying, “I can’t believe Ed O’Bannon took that game away from us.” In his 2018 book, “Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA,” O’Bannon said he received messages like: “Dude, you’re messing up the video games!” and “You’re just some money-hungry ex-jock!”

It is true that the game was discontinued after O’Bannon’s lawsuit, which ended in a $40 million settlement. Although the game didn’t use players’ names, it did incorporate their numbers, skill sets and other identifying factors. But EA Sports was willing to continue the game and pay for the use of players’ names, images and likenesses. The NCAA prevented it because of rules against student athletes making money from their sports.

Besides, for fans who still miss the game, there’s no need to place blame any longer. EA Sports announced in February that it will be bringing back the game with a new name: “EA Sports College Football.” No date for the return has been confirmed.

Myth No. 3

From cost-of-attendance stipends to impending name, image and likeness rights, the amount of money student athletes can receive or earn has increased significantly over the past decade, but many people still argue that athletes are exploited. “I just think the NCAA exploits student-athletes. I mean, everyone is making billions and billions of dollars while keeping the kids on the playing field poor,” says former college football star and Olympic skier Jeremy Bloom. The $1.1 billion a year from the NCAA’s March Madness TV contract and the $470 million annual contract for the College Football Playoff, together with athletic departments’ $10 billion in yearly revenue, are cited as evidence that students get the short end of the stick. “If you’re a reasonable person, it’s insane to build a $150 million recruiting facility, pay your head coach $10 million, the rest of your staff $20 million cumulative, but then say there’s not enough money to help the players,” says former NFL and college football coach John Shoop in the film “Student Athlete.”

But what’s the value of what student athletes do receive? Tuition, room and board, cost-of-attendance stipends, tutoring, coaching, medical treatment, and more can be tough to peg because the value differs not only from school to school but also from one student to the next because of partial scholarships and other variations. Back in 2013, though, the value of a full athletic scholarship was pegged at $125,000 annually. With inflation and new rules that allow athletic departments to provide unlimited meals and a cost-of-attendance stipend, that amount is certainly higher; UCLA spent $5.4 million on meals alone for football players in 2019.

That does mean a handful of top athletes in football and basketball, which generate the bulk of the NCAA’s revenue, are being paid below their market value. But most student athletes wouldn’t command that much in an open market for their athletic services.

Myth No. 4

In a recent Associated Press survey of college athletic directors, 94 percent said it would be somewhat or much more difficult to comply with Title IX rules if they had to start compensating student athletes in revenue-generating sports. “Sharing revenue with student athletes is not feasible,” one athletic director said. “That only works if universities are then absolved of Title IX requirements.”

Many athletic directors are concerned that sharing revenue — or simply spending more on compensation — would require them to cut sports supported by the revenue-generating teams. But Title IX does not prohibit student athletes from being compensated. The provision requires schools to offer opportunities to male and female student athletes substantially proportionate to their enrollment, and equitable treatment in participation, financial aid, equipment, travel, facilities, promotion and more.

Experts generally agree, however, that Title IX doesn’t require dollar-for-dollar investment equality. For example, athletic departments routinely spend more to market and promote revenue-producing sports, which in turn generate dollars used for all sports. The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights has made it clear that “equal treatment” under Title IX doesn’t mean “identical treatment.” But there would probably be an issue if new benefits were granted only to male student athletes or if compensation was far greater for men.

Myth No. 5

College sports has had its fair share of corruption and rule-breaking. In recent years, allegations of paid recruiting got so bad in college basketball that the FBI started a probe. There are those who believe this will only get worse as student athletes are able to monetize their name, image and likeness. The former Princeton and Georgetown men’s basketball coach John Thompson III says boosters and alumni could manufacture faux endorsement deals, funneling money to athletes to induce them to attend a particular institution. On message boards, fans share similar predictions of boosters taking advantage of the situation. Despite state laws and NCAA proposals that prohibit such activity, many believe that violations will be difficult to prove, leading to greater competitive imbalance and corruption.

But again, the schools with more resources already tend to get the best recruits; they compete with each other with better and better amenities, not with direct payments. Roster limits are an effective means of ensuring that programs can’t hoard all the good recruits. And ultimately, student athletes may be less likely to be swayed by boosters when they can make money in legitimate ways while playing their sport in college.

Twitter: @SportsBizMiss

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