Stepping Outside of Tennis: The NCAA and Shamateurism

I have no idea if the recent California law will fix the NCAA’s corrupt system of amateurism in which scholarship athletes in (US-style) football and men’s basketball generate billions of dollars in revenue that make coaches and athletic directors rich while also paying for scholarships for athletes in non-revenue generating sports.  The athletes in the two revenue sports do receive full-tuition scholarships, tutoring, shoes, and the like.  My big question is redistributing most of the revenue that they generate away from them a good system?  I will focus on NCAA basketball as I know it much better than NCAA football, but the CTE risks and other injuries involved with football make the redistribution from NCAA football even more problematic.  This is especially true because NCAA football generates more revenue than NCAA men’s basketball.

My Change: Bodies on the Line for … While Coaches and Schools

I am a huge basketball fan and have been as long as I can remember.  I fell in love with tennis when Boris Becker won Wimbledon in 1985.  I loved basketball as a matter of birth (this condition is common to Kentucky natives).  I always thought the benefits college football and basketball players received were enough.  Then in 2013, Nerlens Noel, a top 5 high school prospect less than 52-weeks earlier, tore his ACL in an injury marked by a scream and writhing in pain on an ESPN televised game between the University of Kentucky and the University of Florida.  Then in a 2013 elite-8 game, the University of Louisville’s Kevin Ware suffered a gruesome compound fracture in front of over 50,000 ticket buyers and a CBS live audience in a game between the University of Louisville and Duke.

ESPN and CBS charge a king’s ransom for television advertisements.  Tickets to live events obviously cost money and this is especially true during the NCAA tournament.  The four coaches involved in those two injury-marred games, John Calipari, Billy Donovan, Rick Pitino, and Coach K, are all multi-millionaires.  They certainly have credentials to back up the notion that they are at the top of their field.  People at the top of a given field tend to make a lot of money.  Still, no group large enough to monetize to advertisers has watched any of them make shots in a basketball game since Billy Donovan’s 1987 time as a guard for the Providence Friars in their improbable Final Four run.  None of these four coaches made a single basket or hit a single free throw in their various lucrative seasons.

The games we watch are played by gasp players.  Coaches who help to assemble, prepare, and strategize revenue-producing teams should be compensated well.  However, there is a glaring issue when the revenue being produced on-field by college students is also being funneled to high salaries for coaches of sports that lose money.  This becomes especially problematic when these student-athletes risk injuries that can detrimentally impact future earnings to support coaches and athletes in sports that lose money.

Olympic Sized Loophole – For More See This by Patrick Hruby*

Athletes in Olympic sports are allowed to keep their medal bonuses from the US Olympic Committee and compete for NCAA teams.  Katie Ledeky helped to generate a lot of advertising revenue in her dominant 2016 Olympic performance.  Ledecky took home $115,000 in medal bonus cash and is still allowed to swim for Stanford University.

Any member of the 2016 NCAA men’s basketball champion Villanova Wildcats who wanted to return to college for 2016-17 would have to forego all monetary benefits from their victory.  I don’t know if the Olympics draw more advertising revenue than the NCAA basketball tournament, but I do think if an Olympic swimmer can remain an amateur while pocketing cash for medals that an NCAA basketball player should be able to make money from signing NCAA memorabilia for fans who might want souvenirs with signatures on them.  Forget $5 per signature on commemorative posters, newspapers, and basketballs, as most NCAA athletes can face penalties for receiving an extra plate of pasta that is not accounted for as part of their amateur benefits.

Quick Math 

For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that a players at a division-1 basketball team at a public university received $100,000 of benefits per year when one considers room, board, tuition, tutoring, travel expenses (although they aren’t on vacation when they fly to Chicago or …), free tickets (that they cannot sell but can be given to family and friends and have some value), equipment (again that they cannot sell), and sundry expenses.  With 13 scholarships available, that adds up to $1.3 million per year for the team.  Not bad, but (my estimates are rounding off and intended for simplicity):

  • Head coach – $1.5-3 million per/year
    • University of Kentucky coach John Calipari makes $9.28 million per year between his university salary, coach’s radio and tv show, and Nike shoe money.  So the total can be much higher than $3 million per/year.
  • Assistant coaches – $1 million per/year divided between the group.  Again, this total can be much higher.
  • Head coaches of say 20 non-revenue sports get paid at least $100-$200 thousand per year coming from revenue generated by football and men’s basketball revenue
    • The same is true of the assistant coaches, academic coordinators, athletic trainers, etc. but their salaries would be lower.
    • The University of Louisville’s head baseball coach/manager makes over $1 million per year and their pitching coach makes around $700 thousand per year.  This means the entire compensation for the Louisville men’s basketball players is less than the pay for two members of the baseball staff who coach a sport that loses money.  That money is being redistributed in a manner deeply removed from the free market.
  • Jerseys, t-shirts, bumper stickers, posters, etc. for the basketball team generate enough revenue to support arena kiosks, arena gift shops, and stand-alone stores dedicated to selling spirit wear for the school.
  • Local sports radio hosts and staffs have their jobs in large part because local teams are interesting enough to draw listeners and advertisers.
  • Similarly, scholarships, tutoring, trainers, buses, hotels, etc. for non-revenue sports are paid for by revenue generated from football and men’s basketball.
    • A golf team might not fly nearly as often as a men’s basketball team and may also divide 3 full-scholarships worth of money up between the team.  Still, $300 thousand for golf scholarships has to come from somewhere.

I am 100% in favor of academic trainers, coordinators, tutors, and merchants who sell spirit wear being able to pay their bills.  I just think the players generating ticket sales, advertising revenue, and the popularity of a team that can sell t-shirts etc. should also be able to make a fair market value.

Clearly, the revenue they are generating is being redirected toward people with no direct connection to generating that revenue.  A trainer taping ankles for a men’s basketball team being paid makes sense.  A trainer taping ankles for a NCAA tennis team is getting his or her bread buttered by the practice, training, play, and injuries risked by players from a sport other than tennis.

Coaches, players, trainers, tutors, etc. for non-revenue sports are making a living off of people like Nerlens Noel and Kevin Ware.  Noel was able to recover enough to be a lottery NBA pick and make money playing basketball in the NBA.  Kevin Ware was never a NBA prospect, but he could play in professional leagues other than the NBA.  Also, U of L and Addidas sold t-shirts referencing his injury at the conclusion of the 2013 NCAA tournament which U of L won.*  Even as a non-NBA prospect, Kevin Ware was part of games that sold many tickets including the tickets sold to the game in which he was injured at Lucas Oil Stadium which has a seating capacity of 70,000* and was part of games that generated millions of viewers and tens of millions in advertising revenue.


*That national title has since been vacated due to tawdry recruiting violations.

* A single NCAA tournament elite-8 game that sold 70,000 tickets at $25 per ticket (humor me) would generate $1.75 million in ticket revenue.  That gross revenue would more than cover the entire season of $1.3 million in compensation for one team’s players even if we ignore the gross revenue generated by much higher ticket prices, luxury boxes, corporate advertising on site, television ad revenue for the game, parking fees, concession sales, and souvenir/spirit-wear sales.  None of that includes the value of the free advertising the universities involved get by having their school names and logos in front of millions of eyeballs during the game.

*Patrick Hruby nails it when he states:

Over a decade ago, Olympic skier Jeremy Bloom—a fine high school student and standout athlete—wanted to play football at the University of Colorado while receiving money from the winter sport sponsors that made his moguls career possible. The NCAA nixed it. More recently, Olympic gymnast Jordyn Wieber wanted to compete for the University of California, Los Angeles gymnastics team. Instead, she was forced to participate as a student-manager and, later, as a volunteer assistant coach. Why? Wieber accepted sponsorship and endorsement money in high school, and the NCAA declared her ineligible. After her final race in Rio, Ledecky told reporters that she was forsaking commercial opportunities—likely worth millions of dollars—in order to swim for Stanford. “I want to get a really great education and have the opportunities that collegiate swimming brings,” she said. “And to do that, I had to remain an amateur.” Left unasked: Why should she have to choose? Because the association unilaterally says so?

Political scientist Harold Lasswell once defined politics as who gets what, when, how. To the front of that, add who gets to decide. While actress Natalie Portman attended Harvard, she appeared in the Star Wars prequels. Nobody forced her to work for free, or to settle for a small portion of her actual worth, because receiving market compensation would undercut her education. There is no National Collegiate Acting Association. Ledecky and other college athlete Olympians may be luckier than McCaffrey, and a bit better compensated, but ultimately they remain just as subject to the NCAA’s whims, and just as deprived of their basic rights as American citizens. Golden handcuffs still bind.

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