Last Friday, I sat in the Boise, Idaho, airport, watching people stream in from across the country dressed in Boise State Broncos gear. College football season is in full swing, and even the airlines are profiting.
But for former college football star Reggie Bush, it has already been a rough season. He may be the only American male who had a worse September than Barack Obama.
On Sept. 16, Bush gave up his 2005 Heisman Trophy, becoming the first player in 75 years to forfeit the award. The Heisman Trophy Trust had discussed stripping him of the prize, based on a National Collegiate Athletic Association probe that determined Bush violated NCAA regulations by accepting cash and gifts from sports agents while playing for the University of Southern California. By voluntarily forfeiting the award, Bush sought to avoid further controversy. His alma mater had already sent back its copy of the trophy and had removed murals with his likeness from campus grounds.
Just days after forfeiting the trophy, Bush, who now plays for the New Orleans Saints, fractured his right fibula in a game against the San Francisco 49ers.
“It’s been a pretty tough week,” Bush said after his injury, adding, “It’s just the way life goes.” But, while injuries may be inevitable in football, the NCAA’s restrictions don’t need to be a part of the way life goes.
In the ordinary world, there is nothing wrong with an extremely talented person receiving benefits from those who seek to make money by marketing his abilities. If Bush had been a violin prodigy, there would be no controversy if a music promoter had signed him to a contract while he was in school. If computers had been Bush’s passion, he might have made billions by inventing a social networking site.
Bush happened to be a strong, fast, agile football player. In the bizarre world of NCAA-regulated sports, however, anything that results in athletes actually getting something in return for their sweat and effort is unethical and verboten. College athletes can receive no compensation other than scholarships, which effectively cost their schools nothing.
NCAA rules stipulate that “An individual shall be ineligible per Bylaw 12.3.1 if he or she (or his or her relatives or friends) accepts transportation or other benefits from any person who represents any individual in the marketing of his or her athletics ability. The receipt of such expenses constitutes compensation based on athletics skill and is an extra benefit not available to the student body in general.”
In other words, the student athlete who risks breaking his fibula on the gridiron is entitled to receive nothing more than the fellow students, including the violin prodigies and the computer geniuses, who watch him do so. But the prodigies and geniuses go on to enjoy their careers. If Bush had broken his fibula at USC, we can safely assume he would not presently be under contract to the New Orleans Saints.
According to the allegations, the agents who provided benefits to Bush were trying to entice him to sign with them after he reached professional status. His family apparently lived in a house owned by one of the agents without paying rent, though they reportedly planned to repay the agent once Bush got his first pro contract. Bush also allegedly received a new suit and limousine transportation for the Heisman ceremony.
It is, of course, true that these benefits were not available to the student body in general. But most members of the student body were not working long hours and taking great physical risk to bring in large sums of money for the university. College athletics is big business, with high-priced tickets and official gear. It also is a big recruiting tool; a successful program, like those at USC and Ohio State, can bring hordes of additional students to campus.
Last summer I wrote about how the NCAA and participating schools received sizable payments from software maker Electronic Arts in exchange for the rights to make the games NCAA Football and NCAA Basketball, which include the identifiable likenesses (though not the names) of real players. The players, per NCAA regulations, did not receive a dime.
As the Department of Labor clamps down on unpaid internships in other industries, it is frankly weird that the NCAA is still permitted to forbid schools from paying young athletes, or allowing third parties to pay them, a situation that raises anti-trust issues in addition to minimum wage considerations. According to new guidelines on internships, a company that offers internships without pay must be able to prove that it “derives no immediate advantage” from the intern’s work. Universities, however, very clearly derive an immediate advantage from the work put in by college athletes.
In the wake of his ordeal, Bush said he plans to start a program to help college athletes navigate the complex rules of the NCAA. “Whatever the NCAA has, whatever programs they have, aren’t working and it needs to be changed,” Bush told The Associated Press. “If it’s not changed, it’s going to continue and it hasn’t stopped yet. It’s going to continue year after year after year and you’re going to see kids be ineligible.”
Making college athletes more aware of the NCAA’s rules and the potential consequences of running afoul of them might protect some young people from having awards retroactively snatched away, but it does nothing to address the fundamental injustice of the system.
“You’ve got universities making millions of dollars off these kids and they don’t get paid,” Bush said to The AP. “The majority of college athletes who come in on scholarship come in [with] nothing. That’s where you have a problem. You’re making all this money off these kids and you’re giving them crumbs and then you’re surrounding these kids with money and telling them not to touch it.”
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.
So this college football season, and probably next season and the season after that, universities will profit – and so will airlines, hotels, coaches, and the manufacturers of all of those fan jerseys – but the linemen who put themselves on the line will get zero.
If you enjoy a college game tomorrow, take a minute to think about the fact that those are other people’s kids on that field, risking broken bones and concussions for our entertainment, having trained themselves through years of grueling two-a-day practices to make it this far, generating a fortune in ticket sales and television rights. Yet they get nothing for it but a free pass to the classroom, even if someone wants to further reward all that effort.
Go, team, go!
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