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It’s time the NCAA loses its greedy grip on student-athletes

Hopefully, the California bill will help loosen its hold on athletes’ entrepreneurial lives

The NCAA is a multibillion-dollar industry. And for decades, players’ advocates have fought to get college athletes some type of compensation.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed bill SB 206, the Fair Pay to Play Act, on LeBron James’ show Uninterrupted, which would allow college athletes in California to profit off their name, likeness and image. Just so we’re clear, this doesn’t mean players will be getting paid from the NCAA or from universities — which, in my opinion they should — but rather that players can be compensated from autograph sessions, TV commercials or endorsement deals.

Newsom said on James’ show: “It’s going to change college sports for the better by having now the interests, finally, of the athletes on par with the interests of the institutions.”

This could start a ripple effect that would change everything for all collegiate athletes across the country. There are already more than a few states that are considering similar bills, as well as U.S. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, a former Ohio State football standout, who is planning to propose a new federal law that would apply to the entire country.

California state Sen. Nancy Skinner made this point: “College sports have made billions for everyone else involved except the very people who are the talent, who create that wealth, and that’s the student-athlete. That’s wrong, and this bill changes that.”

“The NCAA has the power to give this right to every student across the country. If they don’t do the right thing, the rest of the states will do.” – California state Sen. Nancy Skinner

“This would be an antitrust violation if they [the NCAA] excluded California schools. New York state has just introduced a bill. Florida legislator tweeted that he is introducing a bill. Nebraska is also introducing a bill,” said Skinner. “The NCAA has the power to give this right to every student across the country. If they don’t do the right thing, the rest of the states will do it for them.”

Furthermore, if college athletes could make a couple hundred grand while in college, it could actually incentivize them to stay in school and work on their athletic skills a little longer instead of opting to enter the NBA or NFL draft prematurely, which should make both the NCAA and the NBA happy.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. In August 2014, Ed O’Bannon was successful in his five-year battle with the NCAA over gaming rights. A District Court judge ruled that the NCAA had violated antitrust laws by not allowing student-athletes to profit from their likeness in broadcasts and video games. It was a major victory, but surprisingly, instead of compensating athletes for the use of their images in the college editions of video games, the NCAA decided to discontinue the video game series altogether. The NCAA spent millions of dollars fighting this, then took its ball and went home after losing, showing it would rather lose millions than pay players anything.

The NCAA’s reaction to the passing of SB 206 is no different, and although nothing is changing immediately because the law doesn’t actually go into effect until 2023, the NCAA has given every indication that it will fight this until the very end.

I wanted to ask the opinion of someone I respected and who played specifically n California to weigh in on this topic so I asked former UCLA Bruin and two-time NBA All-Star Baron Davis and this is what he said:

“I got nothin’ but love for UCLA, anyone who knows me knows that. We have the greatest fans on earth, but my school profited a lot from me. For the NCAA to actually fight against SB 206 is selfish and greedy of them. They are already making billions. This is nowhere near what they should do which is pay athletes a piece of that billion-dollar revenue they bring in. But at the very least, they should have no problems letting athletes profit off of their own image and likeness. It doesn’t even cut into their profits. They still get to keep their billions. They just want college athletes to be broke with benefits and that’s just not right.”

I have a personal account of exactly what Baron Davis was referring to. Let’s go back to 1996.

My now-wife, Nichole, was in high school and did a syndicated commercial with Tony the Tiger and Frosted Flakes. The commercial was a national hit because she was the first African American girl to be featured by Frosted Flakes.

Nichole Oliver as a sophomore guard at Syracuse in 1998.

Etan Thomas

But Nichole couldn’t keep any of the residuals once she decided to accept an athletic scholarship to Syracuse University. She had to donate all previous earnings and forgo all future earnings from the commercial because, according to NCAA rules, accepting any revenue would result in her being ineligible to receive an athletic scholarship. So, as a result, 17-year-old Nichole had to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to a charity instead of being able to use that money for herself, her family or in whatever way she chose.

If she’d kept the money, it would have had no effect on the NCAA or Syracuse. So what could the possible rationale be against it? If a regular student had a trust left to them, would that student not be allowed to keep the money if he or she decided to go to college on an athletic scholarship?

Here’s what Chris Webber had to say:

“I absolutely loved being a student-athlete at the university of Michigan and I’m thankful for the opportunity that my ability afforded me. The Fab Five will go down in history for our passion, love of the game, and the excitement that we provided fans around the world. We knew the school was making millions of dollars off of us, and said so then that it wasn’t fair and that our peers at universities around the country shared our sentiments,” said Webber. “We could have benefitted from SB 206 which is long overdue. And though this bill does not address all students-athletes concerns, it is a great start. Giving these collegiate athletes options and control of their name is the very least they could do.”

Michigan’s Fab Five from left, Jimmy King, Juwan Howard, Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Ray Jackson pose in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1991.

AP Photo/File

The NCAA can only pull this because it has always had a monopoly as the sole means to a professional career for collegiate athletes, but that’s beginning to change.

  • Darius Bazley, who opted against taking his talents to my alma mater Syracuse, instead took a completely unconventional path. He bypassed the NCAA and the G League and took a year to train and work on his game, which resulted in him being a first-round NBA pick without playing a game in the Carrier Dome.
  • While many revel in criticizing LaVar Ball and Big Baller Brand, LaMelo Ball bypassed the NCAA and is playing in Australia. According to recent reports, LaMelo is being considered a possible No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft. LaVar Ball has blazed a trail that will undoubtedly be duplicated as future players see this approach as successful.
  • The Historical Basketball League (HBL), co-founded by former NBA champion David West and for which I serve on the Athlete Advisory Board, is aimed at providing an alternative to the NCAA by becoming the first college basketball league to compensate and educate its athletes. The league plans to launch in June 2020.

David West of the Golden State Warriors poses for a portrait with the Larry O’Brien Trophy after defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 4 of the 2018 NBA Finals on June 8, 2018, at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. West co-founded the Historical Basketball League, which is aimed at providing an alternative to the NCAA by becoming the first college basketball league to compensate and educate its athletes. It plans to launch in June 2020.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

I asked West to weigh in on the consequences of the California bill.

“We want everyone who has an issue with the current NCAA system to have a viable alternative. We’re past complaining. We know what the problem is. We know the exploitation that exists, and we know the NCAA is not going to change unless they are forced to change,” said West. “So instead of waiting another decade for that day to come, or celebrating baby steps like bill SB 206, we have created our answer to the NCAA problem and it’s the Historical Basketball League.”

One of the first naysayers to publicly express disapproval of this bill was Tim Tebow. Personally, I have a great deal of respect for Tebow. He has a willingness to stand up for what he believes, which is his faith in Christ. That’s a bold move, and while he received plenty of praise for standing up for what he believes, he also received a tremendous amount of backlash and hate. But he did not waver and stood firm, and that’s what being an athlete activist is all about. However, on this topic, I wholeheartedly disagree.

“So instead of waiting another decade for that day to come, or celebrating baby steps like bill SB 206, we have created our answer to the NCAA problem and it’s the Historical Basketball League.” – David West

Tebow appeared on First Take to passionately defend the status quo in the NCAA and said athletes’ desire to be compensated is part of a “me first” society.

Besides Tebow, Doug Gottlieb, the former Notre Dame and Oklahoma State basketball guard turned broadcaster, used his platform on Fox Sports to go on a tirade against Newsom and James. Doug believes that student-athletes are amply compensated by their scholarships and that allowing college athletes to make money this way will jeopardize the entirety of amateur athletics as we know it.

It’s so disappointing to see former athletes sit on their perched position of privilege and condemn something that would benefit all collegiate athletes, then flip it as if the athletes are being greedy and exhibiting a “me first” mentality. In actuality, it’s the NCAA that needs to have an Ebenezer Scrooge experience (after being visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past) and be remorseful for having exploited athletes for decades.

I won’t hold my breath, but it’s the NCAA that should go back and come up with an actual plan to fairly compensate college athletes instead of exploiting their “athlete clients,” similar to what some businesses do in an underdeveloped country: set up shop and pay workers pennies a day while they make millions — or, in the case of the NCAA, billions. Then it tells athletes they should be grateful for the opportunity they have been given.

Ultimately, I think the NCAA has two options:

  • Realize it is in fact losing its economic stronghold and come up with a compromise that would be advantageous to the continuation of its existence.
  • Or continue its unmovable wall of greed while living in a past time when athletes had no other option. Relentlessly fighting the inevitable would only confirm the NCAA’s own demise. The choice is up to them.

Etan Thomas, writes for The Guardian and has previously written for The Washington Post, Huffington Post, CNN, ESPN, Hoopshype.com and slamonline. He frequently can be seen on MSNBC as a special correspondent for “hot topics.” He continues to be invited on syndicated radio and co-hosts a weekly local radio show on WPFW 89.3FM, The Collision, where sports and politics collide.