America's college sports stars try to level the paying field

Out of America: College football and basketball are big business; now players are challenging the system where they essentially work for free

Share

It's been dubbed, with typically engaging US hyperbole, "the sports trial of the century". Well, not quite. The cases that removed the maximum wage, and the Bosman ruling and its US equivalents, ending a system whereby players were virtual chattel of their clubs, were surely more important. Still, the lawsuit led by a former university basketball player named Ed O'Bannon, currently being fought out in a California courtroom, is no minor matter. If he prevails, the United States' top college athletes could actually get paid for their labours.

So what, you may wonder: college sport, what's the big deal? If so, then you haven't lived in the US. Elsewhere in the world, and certainly in Britain, university sport conjures up mostly Arcadian images, of deck chairs round a cricket field, or proud parents on the touchline as their offspring do battle on a muddy football pitch; at most, a bit of boozy jostling for a decent spot on the Surrey side on Boat Race day.

Here, though, college sport – or, more exactly, basketball and, above all, college football (the American variety) – is a mega industry. In some parts of the country, college games eclipse their major league equivalents: imagine, say, the University of Manchester football team having a bigger following than Manchester United.

Of the 120 largest sports arenas in the US, nine are for college football, the smallest of them with a capacity of more than 92,000. In some of the largest universities, private as well as public, the most important – and best-paid – official is not a star professor but the coach of the football or basketball team. At the University of Alabama, for instance, football coach Nick Saban reportedly makes $6.9m (£4.1m) a year. Then, again, why not? The team, known as The Crimson Tide, is the biggest thing in Alabama, period.

The teams play in jealously protected leagues or conferences, and operate scouting systems to spot the best highschool talent. For the most successful colleges, the rewards are huge, fuelled by colossal television contracts. The five biggest football leagues pull in more than $1bn a year; then there's a play-off contract worth $7.3bn over the next decade. The deal for the men's annual college basketball tournament (aka "March Madness") will bring in even more, $10.8bn over 14 years.

The good news is that this funds university sports programmes that otherwise might not be viable. The bad news is that this gravy train is run by an organisation called the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, these days about as popular here as Fifa among followers of another sporting tournament now unfolding. The truly astonishing news is that the only people not aboard the train are the individuals who make it all possible, the athletes themselves.

The gigantic moneymaker that is US college sport rests on a pseudo-Corinthian sham – that student athletes are amateurs for whom their sport is a beloved hobby, a mere sideline. The reality is very different. The colleges compete ferociously to enlist the best prospects. They are offered scholarships, meaning that tuition (though not always board) is free. But, once enlisted, the sports star is often shunted off into easy courses requiring little actual study, so more time can be spent on training. The system would be defensible if the sacrifice was later rewarded by rich contracts in the National Football League or the National Basketball Association. In reality, only 1 per cent of student athletes go on to a major league career. For the rest, after their moment in the sun, life's humdrum grind awaits.

All this may be about to change. The torrent of money pouring into college sport has raised the stakes, generating scandal after scandal, including under-the-counter payments to athlete's families, and fake courses that remove the tiresome need to study at all. As O'Bannon testified last week, "I was an athlete masquerading as a student." But his is only one of several legal challenges that threaten to change the model of US college sport for good.

Earlier this year, the federal body governing labour relations ruled that football players with scholarships at Northwestern University in Chicago were employees of the university, entitled to form a union. Northwestern is a private, not a public university, and legal wrangling has held up an announcement of the result. But the outcome could be a crushing blow to the existing system.

That has been followed by two cases relating to the use of college players' likenesses in NCAA-licensed video games (sold at much profit but for which they receive nothing). One was brought by a former Arizona State University quarterback, Sam Keller, and a group of players who sought financial compensation. The NCAA settled out of court for $20m, all the while denying it amounted to pay for athletic performance – which, of course, it was.

O'Bannon's grievance is similar. However, he and his fellow plaintiffs are not after money. Far more threateningly, they want an end to the NCAA rule that bars payment to college athletes for the use of their names or images in broadcasts or video games. A final verdict may take months, even years. Suffice it to say that the judge's comments thus far have not been sympathetic to the NCAA.

But the most dangerous challenge of all is the suit filed in New Jersey last month, by the labour lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, aiming at the NCAA's real Achilles heel: the charge that it operates as a price-fixing cartel. The organisation, he argues, has illegally limited payment to student athletes to the value of a sports scholarship, regardless of the billions of dollars of revenue they generate.

Kessler wants the fiction of amateurism dropped, and to turn top college players into salaried employees, in an unfettered market. "In no other business," he says, "would it be suggested that the people who are providing the essential services work for free. Only in big-time college sports is that line drawn." For how much longer?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A huge step forward in medical science, but we're not all the way there yet

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album