Why the Olympic Model would work

Mention the Olympic model of amateurism to many college officials and the response is swift and powerful.

“That would be like the old west,” said Paul Kowalczyk, current assistant athletics director at the University of Illinois and former AD at Colorado State University and Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “Is it just sell your own image or does it include having schools bid on your services. That would create chaos; it basically professionalizes what is an amateur sport. I think there are tons of problems. The biggest is if you start paying your athletes, they are basically an employee, then you have worker’s compensation and unions. If they were going to do that, for me, shut it down, go back to the Division III model.”

Give Kowalczyk credit, his belief in the amateur model is real, as is his knowledge of how important media money has become to college athletics.

Dave Kidwell, a former Sports Information Director at Eastern Illinois University, also said that the idea of an Olympic model could be problematic.

“The paperwork alone if you did this, you’d have to hire three more people, just to keep tabs on what athletes are doing,” Kidwell said. “You give an inch, you take a mile.”

Both Kowalczyk and Kidwell freely admit the system is broken. Both understand that a system that relies on taking from the student athlete and giving to the athletics program, isn’t working. But the thought of an Olympic approach, where athletes were free to profit from their own likeness, like any other college student, gives them pause.

“The rich would get richer,” Kidwell said. “The Ohio State’s, Michigan’s, Alabama’s already have a big advantage and if a coach goes to one of the big donors and says we need this guy, it could turn into a bidding war. The gap would widen to schools with deeper pockets.”

At the very least, to schools that have boosters who are willing to pay student athletes for their likeness or to advertise their products.

But that happens already. Students go to the school that will give them the best deal and the best exposure. Changing their ability to profit from that exposure isn’t going to change the fact that five star recruits are going to be heading to one place, while three star recruits will be going somewhere else.

The answer to this, despite the protests of the administrators, is the Olympic model of amateurism. First, what is the Olympic model. Basically, the Olympic model doesn’t require the NCAA to pay athletes. What the Olympic model does is it allows athletes the opportunity to sign endorsement deals that allow them to profit off their likeness. When this model first went into effect, critics said that this would end amateurism at the Olympic level. It didn’t. They said that people wouldn’t want to see professionals compete at the Olympics. They do.

What’s interesting about this model is that it’s truly a free market system. Most athletes don’t get anything from the Olympic model. Others do. Success breeds endorsements.

The fact is, the Olympic model of amateurism is the BEST route for Universities to take, for a number of reasons.

  1. It’s ethically the right thing to do.

Broken down to its simplest form, the O’Bannon case is not as much about amateurism as it is about right of publicity. O’Bannon, and Sam Keller, both looked at how the NCAA continued to profit, from O’Bannon’s likeness in NCAA tournament advertisements and from EA Sports video games that used Keller’s likeness down to the sweatbands he used, to make a profit for the NCAA.

The NCAA has always tightly held on to the fact that it owns a student’s likeness during his or her time in college. In fact, an athlete can’t compete at the NCAA level without signing form NCAA Form 08-3a. The form consists of seven parts, including parts three and four, an affirmation of the student athlete’s status as an amateur athlete and a statement concerning promotion of NCAA championships and other NCAA events. The form requires the student athlete to affirm that he or she is an amateur athlete and requires student athletes to allow the NCAA, or any third party acting on the behalf of the NCAA to use their name or picture to “generally promote NCAA Championships or any other NCAA events, activities, or programs.”

If athletes decline to sign the form, they become ineligible to compete at the NCAA level.

In other words, you don’t sign away your rights, you don’t play. In the 1990s, Jeremy Bloom, a football player for the University of Colorado, challenged this. He was also an Olympic skier and had endorsement deals that he needed to be able to raise money to compete in the Olympics. The NCAA ruled him ineligible and an appellate court ruled in favor of the NCAA. But, in the ruling, the judge said that the NCAA must have the student’s best interests at heart. As the money has continued to grow, it has become clear that the NCAA does not have the athletes’ best interests at heart.

“It’s hard to defend because if the average student could do that, why can’t the athlete,” Kidwell said. “The average student can do something like that. It gets harder and harder to defend that proposition. The student athlete should have the same opportunities as the average student.”

Ethical reasoning, from Kant, to Rawls, to Mill to Aristotle all provide arguments that suggest that athletes should be able to own the rights to their name and likeness. Ethical reasoning doesn’t matter when you are talking about billions of dollars. Instead, this approach puts the power in the hands of the athletes. It will take some power away from coaches and, despite protestations from NCAA officials, it could actually take some power away from the power conferences.

Here’s how. Currently, the members of the five power football conferences (remember, football is where all the money is anyway and the NCAA has NO control over that money anyway) are telling all the other conferences in the NCAA that if they don’t get more power to do things their way, then they might break apart and form their own division. This is so they can pay student athletes their “Full” scholarship. What this basically means is that they want to vote themselves more power in the NCAA. The five (six in basketball) conferences also dominate NCAA college basketball money, with 68 percent of the NCAA television revenue money heading their way. The argument that they need more power is absurd.

Go to the Olympic model, let students make their own money and you take that power away from the major conferences.

The question is, would this allow for a shift in power conferences. Would more power shift to schools near a major media communications hub? Conferences are more worried about that than they are about boosters getting some schools more recruits.

2. What about Title IX?

Title IX could be a problem with the NCAA’s current possible approach. Who do you pay the “Full scholarship” to? If they went to the Olympic model, the fact is that most endorsements would go to the male athletes of the revenue producing sports. But the female athletes who excel at their sports would be able to find a niche in endorsing products. They would have the same opportunity to promote themselves as other athletes. It would be an open market.

I’m at over 1,200 words on this. Will continue this argument tomorrow.


Can you pay student athletes and still charge student fees?

The question seemed so simple: can you write about the NCAA’s stance on right of publicity, taking into account both ethics and law?

How much easier can this get? With the Ed O’Bannon case making its way through the courts and with EA Sports and Collegiate Licensing Company reaching agreement in their portion of the Sam Keller case, this job looked almost too easy. The law favors the athletes when it comes to right of publicity. But the ethics?

How can the NCAA seriously make the case that Johnny Manziel has no right to sell his autograph, but it’s perfectly OK for Texas A&M to sell $20,000 dollar tickets to an athletic dinner, with the promise that those attending will be able to meet Manziel?

How can the NCAA claim that the jerseys it sells promote the team, when a consumer can type in a player’s name and be sent to a site that promotes their number?

The hypocrisy evident in the NCAA is actually embarrassing for the institution. How can they claim to be ethical in their approach?

But it’s not that simple.

Too many ways to look at this issue exist. The first may be the most simple: student fees. Is it OK for Universities to charge student fees to help fund an athletic program and then to pay student athletes?

Currently, 351 schools will be termed NCAA Division I schools next year. Only 22 made a profit last year. Still, many of these schools made between $4 -12 million in branding, much of which came from the sale of merchandise that is directly related to the athletes who wear the jerseys and other merchandise.

Why shouldn’t the players get part of the cut?

This argument comes down to the idea of amateurism and professionalism. The NCAA claims its athletes are amateurs and uses its own model of amateurism as the basis, the NCAA model. What does the NCAA model of amateurism mean?

Whatever the NCAA says it means.

Seriously, that was the answer given by sports economists Andrew Zimbalist and Allen Sack in a report given to the Drake Group executive board. (Read their report here).

The NCAA wants its athletes to sign away any ability to make money while in school and also doesn’t want to pay the athletes fair market value. By any standard, that’s not fair. The argument that the schools are paying, they’re paying the cost of tuition, room and board, matters. But to what extent?

College athletics are not fair. Sport is not fair and neither is competition. I remember a talk with current Southern Illinois University director of athletics, Mario Moccia, about the NCAA’s television revenue system and I used the word fair.

Moccia looked at me and said “The entire system is not fair. It’s not built to be fair. The fact is, we enter this knowing that it’s a stacked deck against us. We have the choice to participate in that system or not. We choose to participate.”

In this instance, Moccia was talking about the issues that schools outside of the top six conferences have getting exposure and being considered as possible NCAA men’s basketball tournament at large contenders. But the words fit here as well.

And so does the idea that if schools start to pay students a stipend, conferences like the Missouri Valley Conference, a so called mid-major conference that usually is well represented in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament (Wichita State qualified for the Final Four in 2013) might end up trying to do the same.

Problem is, most Missouri Valley Conference schools have to get by with the help of athletic fees from students. Students are already paying at least some portion of the load for athletics, the thought of those students paying to give athletes some spending money is too much.

Add to that the fact that smaller conferences like the Ohio Valley Conference really depend on these fees.

At Eastern Illinois University, student fees comprise nearly half of the athletic budget. Smaller schools without a big media rights package and only one share from the NCAA Tournament, have to make do with student fees and their yearly money games from football (when a smaller school agrees to go to a larger school and take a beating for a nice fee).

But it’s not just smaller conferences that rely on student fees. In a story written by Bloomberg last summer, the Big Ten Conference gets an average of $61 from each student for athletics fees. (Story here).

That’s the same Big Ten Conference whose commissioner said that power conferences like it need to have more control over issues involving money so that it could more easily give full value scholarships (up to $6,000 per student) if necessary.

And what happens when a school like Rutgers joins the Big Ten. Rutgers put $28 million worth of student fees into its athletic program in 2012, says Bloomberg.

It’s one thing for a smaller conference like the Ohio Valley to rely on student fees or for a high end mid major conference to do the same. But when you are talking about conferences that make billions of dollars a year, taking money from students to break even is just wrong.

The Big Ten Conference has its own television network. The conference has some of the most profitable college sports programs in the nation. And the average of $61 worth of student fees is among the lowest of any conference in the nation. But using student fees to pay college athletes is morally repugnant to say the least. Especially when there is a much easier path to take.

That path is the Olympic model. I’ll talk about that tomorrow.


5 Power Conferences add to collegiate hypocrisy

Let’s start this discussion off by agreeing on one simple point – when it comes to its management of sports, the NCAA is a cesspool of hypocrisy and greed. The organization has no moral authority whatsoever, despite its constant attempts to take the moral high ground on the position of amateurism. The New York Times’ Joe Nocera pointed out the lengths the NCAA will go to in order to propagate the myth that its stance on amateurism is OK (story here.)

The NCAA started the myth of amateurism in order to prevent worker’s compensation suits from injured football players and the thought that college athletes might actually unionize. It has propagated that myth through the years, even as television money has exploded.

But it’s not just the NCAA that exists in a moral cesspool. The NCAA has no say in where college football television money goes. That is all left to the college conferences and they don’t seem to be standing on any form of moral high ground themselves. It has been the conferences constant grab for more money that has led to conference realignment and the separation between what are now the five power football conferences and the rest of the college world.

This week’s IAG Conference in New York has been quite interesting. It’s included comments from Big Ten Conference commissioner Jim Delany that if other conferences don’t give in to the power five conference’s demand for more autonomy in making decisions on how much a student’s scholarship is worth (how much they can pay the athlete) they may just take their football and leave the NCAA for their own Super Conference.

Of course, they won’t do that, but the big football conferences are worried about the O’Bannon case. The NCAA is going to lose this one and if something isn’t done now, before the decision comes down, they’re going to lose money.

But that isn’t going to stop them from decrying the entire idea of paying athletes. Big 12 commissioner made it clear at the conference: “If we proceed down the path of employer-employee relationship. We will forever have lost our way.”(Story here)

At the same time, if the O’Bannon case goes to trial and the NCAA loses, it may be facing just such an outcome. And, instead of making concessions toward that, the current response is to threaten to cut non-revenue producing sports.

“It is highly unlikely that Michigan State could offset a $10 million shortfall [created by paying certain student-athletes fifty percent of broadcast revenue] without cutting between 4 and 8 sports,” Michigan State athletics director Mark Hollis wrote in a statement to the Detroit Free Press (story here).

That’s not true. Not even close to true considering the salaries the athletics directors, coaches and assistant coaches are making off the athletes’ work.

So the 65 football schools will gain more power to control their fates. What happens to the top of the line college basketball conferences? That doesn’t matter since, even though the basketball money is huge to everyone else, it’s just peanuts for the 65 football schools.

While attention has been focused on the power play by the Big 5 Conferences, news about the NCAA’s latest motion considering O’Bannon is also coming out. It’s fitting, considering how linked the Power 5s response is to the O’Bannon case.

Here is a piece that explains all of the NCAA’s arguments. (Story)

I’m going to spend the next few days responding to these arguments.


More stories come out about Obama Eight – Sterling still the forgotten man

A new wave of stories chronicling President Obama’s war on whistleblowers is out, and this time, at least one story mentioned Jeffrey Sterling in terms that weren’t just about James Risen (It also mentioned my journalism class).

Jeffrey Sterling is a 1989 Millikin University graduate. He went from Millikin to Washington University and earned a law degree. After that, he joined the CIA. Sterling loved his time in the CIA. For all the bad things that have happened to him since he was fired, his love for the organization still shows through.

Instead of writing all the background on the case, why don’t you read what my kids wrote about Sterling’s case here.

Sterling’s case is different. Not because of what he allegedly did, but because of the media case that is connected to his own. Most mentions of Sterling (like this one) concentrate on the case between New York Times journalist James Risen instead of the actual case against Sterling. Risen’s case is a crucial First Amendment case that will most likely be decided by the Supreme Court and will clarify Branzburg v. Hayes, a Supreme Court decision that left more questions than answers when discussing whether reporters should be forced to give information about a crime. It’s an important case. And when journalists see this case, they’re attention immediately goes to the Risen part of the case.

And they forget Sterling.

Imagine, not only are you accused of giving away government secrets, but you can’t defend yourself in court. And, the court of public opinion cares more about Risen than it does Sterling.

That’s the world Sterling, who claims his innocence, lives in. While another of the Obama Eight, Thomas Drake, spends time giving public speeches about government overstepping its bounds and works on his Ph.D. in the evenings, Sterling remains unemployed, hampered by the stigma of a federal indictment. When Sterling had a job and was trying to get away from the government spotlight, he found himself called into work while recovering from an injury, just so the government could arrest him publicly.

When he tried to go back to Wahington University to get a LLM degree in right of publicity, he was turned down by own alma mater (story here).

Every way he turns, Sterling finds a dead end. It’s not just that he’s under indictment, it’s the fact that he’s invisibly under indictment. All Sterling can do is wait for the government to finish its fight with Risen, the New York Times and the journalism community in large, before he can step up and have his day in court.

All Sterling can do is wait – forgotten.

Being a part of the small fraternity that is that of the eight whistleblowers is difficult enough. Being the forgotten part of it is really difficult.


Media need to change Illinois pension narrative

Covering the passage of a bill to reform the Illinois pension fund is a difficult job – especially if you don’t know the history of the Illinois government and how it has mishandled pensions for decades.

First, most organizations are pointing out that Illinois’ pension has a $100 billion pension shortfall and that approaching that shortfall is paramount to fixing the state’s plummeting credit rating. That’s the easy part of the story and most organizations, including CNN, have managed to do this (CNN story here).

Media have also reported that the law will most likely be challenged in court.  The Chicago Tribune wrote that Illinois unions will certainly try this in court (Tribune story here.)

The Tribune has actually gone on record, taking a stand for passage of the bill (story).

The paper has received some flak for its actions, but its point, that something has to be done to fix a pension that has been so underfunded for so many years that its existence is a major cause for the state’s financial problems, is valid.

But it’s not telling the whole story. The entire story is a difficult story to write, because it takes the time to go back decades and examine the total failure of the Illinois government to do its job. The unions aren’t the bad guys in this story and neither are the teachers and government employees who did their jobs for years in good faith, who pointed out for decades that the Legislature was making mistakes that would come back to haunt them and that those decisions would break the state of Illinois.

Look back through the years and it’s easy to find examples. In 1992, Illinois Governor Jim Edgar diverted 21 million from the pension fund to the general fund. He had to go all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court to do so, but he made it work (Chicago Tribune stories about this here and here). For nearly a decade, Chicago Public Schools paid nothing into the fund. And year after year, politicians dipped into the fund, paying off bills and promising to pay it back. They never did. (story)

And now the unions get blamed. It wasn’t their fault. But that’s not the story now. The story is the fact that Illinois’ pension deficit now eats so deeply into the state’s budget that it has to be reformed. But why not add a paragraph or two into each and every story that explains how Illinois politicians, Democrat and Republican, brought the state to this point and how people warned them of their consequences. Why not remind the audience that the state is now asking those who have worked for years without breaking their contractual promise, that it is now time for them to sacrifice again, for the good of the state.

Illinois’ political problems are well known, well documented and enough of the state’s former governors have proved to be well prosecuted.

But their biggest crime was what they did to their employees over decades. No bill or reform can ever fix that.