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NCAA Reform Starts with Us

Jul 9 2019
Photo by
Matt Patterson/AP Images
Photo by
Matt Patterson/AP Images
Russell Okung
L.A. Chargers
Jul 9 2019
T

he summer going into my senior year at Oklahoma State in 2009, I had a hundred dollars in my bank account and many bills to pay. 

My mother had just lost her job and required my financial support. I was lucky enough to know that I would likely be picked in the first round of the NFL draft that spring and would eventually be financially secure. But at that point in time — like so many college athletes around the country — I was broke.

Being broke stung, particularly because I knew that my teammates and I had made others rich. During my days at OSU, I saw fans regularly pay thousands of dollars to fly out to Stillwater to attend games, while many of my teammates didn’t have enough money to fly home to see our families during school breaks. I watched our university lavish elite donors with high-end dinners, while some of my teammates were skipping meals due to lack of funds.

All of this happened while we were wearing commercial insignia on our helmets, shoes and jerseys so that big-time apparel companies could write multimillion-dollar checks to our schools; while we watched universities sell jerseys with our names on the backs — and memorabilia with our images on it — every day; while we saw our likenesses displayed on NCAA video game posters. Our team was worth millions to the school and yet we often had no more than a hundred or so dollars in our bank accounts.

Knowing that I was probably going to get a multimillion-dollar contract when I was drafted by an NFL team, several sports agencies offered me a line of credit. By working with a bank, they could advance me tens of thousands of dollars that would last me until I could cash my first paycheck. 

Those credit offers usually came with high interest rates. And I knew that for every month I did not pay back the advance I would be hit with steep fees. I knew it was a bad deal, but my lack of funds meant I had almost zero bargaining power. My desperation meant that I was vulnerable to predatory lenders who were literally profiting off of my poverty. And the same thing was happening to a lot of other players I knew.

Yes, some of us were fortunate enough to be all but promised multimillion-dollar contracts down the road. But promises don’t pay rent that’s due in a week and they don’t enable us to provide money to parents and siblings who are struggling financially. That’s why, like so many of my peers, I had little choice but to sign on the dotted line and accept the credit. I used the cash to buy car insurance (I was riding dirty) and food, while I prepped to get ready for the NFL combine, where my “value” would be assessed. 

My situation was a common one, and it continues to be for so many college athletes. The one thing that would’ve changed our bargaining position? Cash.

If my peers and I had been compensated for the revenue generated from the use of our names and images during our college careers, we would’ve been in a better position to control our financial futures. As things stand, college athletes are not allowed to make money from the licensing of their names and images — and that’s something that should change.

Fortunately, California’s legislature is contemplating a bill, the Fair Pay to Play Act, which would reverse that. The bill, introduced by state senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), would allow athletes to be compensated for the use of their name and likeness starting in 2023. That means athletes at California universities would be compensated not by their schools, but by outside sources — such as video game companies or clothing manufacturers — for the use of their names and likenesses. Even just having the opportunity to sign autographs for money without sacrificing eligibility would make a huge difference for so many student athletes.

Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos/Getty Images

The bill has passed the state senate and now moves to the Higher Education Committee. But the NCAA has pushed back, threatening to revoke the eligibility of California schools if the bill becomes law. The threat is likely a bluff — without California and its nearly 30 public colleges and universities, the NCAA would not only lose one of the largest states in the country, but also a huge chunk of income. And without massive income, the NCAA is reduced to a rule book that no one can enforce.

That was the state that the NCAA found itself in in the 1948. As Taylor Branch discussed in 2013 in a piece in The Atlantic titled, “The Shame of College Sports,” the NCAA enacted a “Sanity Code” that year that was supposed to prohibit college athletes from receiving benefits other than scholarships. The code, a forerunner of the NCAA’s current rules, was instituted because universities were scrambling to lure recruits with financial promises, leading to an unequal war for talent between rich and poor universities.

The problem with all this was that few colleges took the code seriously. Most flagrantly violated it, leading to its repeal a few years later. It was only when the NCAA hired Walter Byers as the executive director in 1951 things begin to change. Television was starting to become an important consideration, and Byers deftly maneuvered relationships so that the NCAA would have the right to exclusively negotiate with television networks on behalf of every college team. This positioned the NCAA to take a cut from TV contracts, enabling it to amass millions of dollars in funds for the first time — as well as to finally enforce its rules.

Around this same time, the widow of Ray Dennison, who had died from a head injury suffered while playing college football in Colorado for Fort Lewis A&M, filed for workmen’s compensation benefits. Although the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school, agreeing that Dennison wasn’t eligible since the college was “not in the football business,” the case scared colleges. If players would one day be classified as employees, it might mean schools could be on the hook for disability payments and workmen’s compensation for thousands of people.

So Byers and the NCAA invented the term “student-athlete,” an infamous expression that has been the core of the NCAA’s justification, till today, for not paying players. The (poor) logic goes that if we are students first, and athletes second, then receiving free tuition is sufficient compensation for our roughly 50-hours-a-week of labor. In his memoir, Byers describes how the NCAA came up with the term:

I suppose none of us wanted to accept what was really happening. That was apparent in behind-the-scenes agonizing over the issue of workmen’s compensation for players … I was shocked that outsiders could believe that young men on grants-in-aid playing college sports should be classified as workers.

The argument, however, was compelling. In a nutshell: the performance of football and basketball players frequently paid the salaries and workmen’s compensation expenses of stadium employees, field house ticket takers, and restroom attendants, but the players themselves were not covered. 

Although Byers was, for most of his career, adamant about enforcing NCAA rules that prevented financial payments to athletes, he later conceded that the rules no longer made sense. They had been meant primarily to level the playing field between rich and poor colleges. But instead, they ended up bulldozing athletes and enriching coaches and administrators. Byers saw how universities and colleges would publically feign a “fight” to protect athletes from the “taint of money,” and then turn around and funnel as much money toward its institutions. It was, in his own words, “plantation-like.” (According to a report by the Aspen Institute, in 2015 the 53 public schools from the five major NCAA conferences spent an average of $765,000 per coach on their football staffs, and $36,000 in scholarship value per player.)

Byers saw clearly that what was happening was an archetypal David and Goliath situation: A bunch of 18- to 19-year-old teenagers against a billion-dollar college-sports enterprise, with an array of lawyers and lobbying forces on its side. By the mid-’80’s, as he was headed to retirement, he started to advocate for college players to share in the revenue generated by their labor — to the disbelief of his colleagues.

Toward the end of his memoir, Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes, Byers wrote:

“I believe the record now clearly shows that the major hope for reform lies outside the collegiate structure. What the colleges will not do voluntarily should be done for them.”

This is one of the main messages I’m bringing to the floor of the California legislature this afternoon, July 9, when I testify in support of the Fair Pay to Play Act. Things ended up working out for me, but there are countless other athletes who have really struggled because of the NCAA’s arcane bylaws.  College athletes are in school for a very short period of time, which makes it hard for us to organize — all colleges need to do to prevail is wait us out. We cannot win without support from the outside.

Politicians and voters, our major hope for reform lies in your hands.


Okung is a member of the Los Angeles Chargers entering his 10th season playing in the NFL. This piece was written with research assistance and consultation from Charles Grantham, the Director of the Center for Sport Management at Seton Hall. 

Russell Okung
L.A. Chargers