The question of whether student-athletes in college sports are adequately compensated for their services is a debate that has persisted for many years. It has recently become a particularly hot topic in light of a decision by the National Labor Relations Board that Northwestern University’s football players can unionize; as well as a study done by Drexel University and the National Collegiate Players Association that says that the average college football player is worth $178,000 per year, and the average college basketball player, $375,000 per year.
On one hand, student-athletes receive what otherwise would be expensive tuition, room, and board at no cost; other than the time they spend playing and training for a sport they presumably love. On the other hand, colleges – particularly colleges with juggernaut football and basketball programs – generate obscene amounts of money from these student-athletes’ services; which makes the tuition, room, and board the athletes receive look meager by comparison.
Further complicating the issue, due to their substantial academic and athletic responsibilities, student-athletes generally do not have enough time to hold a job if they wanted one. Yet despite their colleges profiting hand-over-fist from these student-athletes’ talent and hard work, the student-athletes, in turn, are not even allowed to earn commissions on jersey sales (indeed, sales of jerseys with prominent players’ names on them are prohibited), or even to sign autographs for a few bucks. In fact, only recently – after star basketball player, Shabazz Napier, stated he sometimes went to bed hungry – did the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) change its meal program rule, which now allows student-athletes unlimited meals, as opposed to only three a day.
In light of the foregoing (and much more), on March 17, 2014, four student-athletes filed a class-action antitrust lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey (Trenton) against the NCAA for “illegally restraining competition for the services of players.” Legalese aside, this claim is about whether or not student-athletes should be paid for their services. Jeffrey Kessler, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, likened the NCAA’s policy – that student-athletes only receive tuition, room, and board for their services – to a price-fixing agreement. (Price-fixing is where would-be competitors agree to operate under a set arrangement in order to control a particular market, and is typically illegal.)
Kessler hopes to appeal to the public by demonizing universities as money-hungry entities that generate billions of dollars at the expense of student-athletes, while the student-athletes themselves are sometimes forced to go to bed hungry. Further, many NCAA conferences have multimillion-dollar television contracts with major networks, and some even have their own networks (e.g., Pac-12 Network). Kessler also points out that in a majority of states, a public university’s head football or basketball coach is its highest paid state employee. When college athletics takes financial precedent over other state positions that one could argue are significantly more important to the public than a coach, it is even more puzzling that athletes are prohibited from earning their fair share.
Kessler’s experience includes handling a number of significant sports-related matters such as McNeil, et al. v. NFL, et al., which struck down a number of free agency restrictions under antitrust laws. In another high profile NFL case, he was instrumental in ending the 2011 NFL Lockout.
In the current action, Kessler is representing Martin Jenkins, J.J. Moore, Bill Tyndall, and Kevin Perry, who have all played basketball or football at a number of large universities such as Rutgers University and Clemson University. Specific conferences named in the suit (in addition to the NCAA) are the “Big 5” money making conferences (often known as the BCS Conferences in college football), which includes the Southeastern Conference, Big 10 Conference, Big 12 Conference, Pacific 12 Conference, and Atlantic Coast Conference.
What may strike some as odd is that the plaintiffs are not seeking guaranteed salary compensation, as many would undoubtedly hope for. Instead, the suit seeks to permit universities the option to pay athletes as if they were university employees. Many have argued that it would be impossible to pay athletes in less popular sports, which often lose colleges money every year. According to Kessler, however, schools would most likely only begin to engage in payment negotiations with regard to profitable sports (i.e., basketball and football).
The plaintiffs do not lose sight of the fact that scholarships are a valid reward for student-athletes. It is not their intent in seeking additional compensation that athletic scholarships lose any merit. It is difficult, however, to look past the greediness of universities (and the NCAA), as they participate in a multibillion-dollar industry in which the main employees (students) receive no actual monetary payment for their services.
Many experts perceive the ability to pay student-athletes as an excellent way to delineate between those who are at college for both an education and athletics, and those who are simply preparing for a professional career in a sports. One solution could be for teams to seek endorsement deals with local vendors, thereby rewarding players who will never play past their collegiate careers. With no readily apparent answer, this lawsuit should at least get the ball rolling toward a resolution.