Should college athletes be paid?

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In March of 2011, there was no bigger figure in sports than Kemba Walker. He was the face of the NCAA Tournament, having led the underdog UConn Huskies to a breathtaking and unprecedented championship.

His performance helped UConn earn millions upon millions of dollars in merchandise, new enrollments, and exposure.

None of it would have been possible without him, yet he didn’t see a dime of it.

Even though Kemba is now earning big money in the NBA, there are many athletes like him who will never cash in on the success that earned their schools a fortune.

NCAA presidents will stammer on and on about how college sports aren’t about money, then they’ll uproot their athletic programs, abandon tradition and shun geography in the gluttonous pursuit of new conference affiliations and their accompanying revenue streams.

Syracuse, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and others have bolted the Big East for the literally “greener” pastures of the ACC.

Today, a few college athletes are fighting back. Heisman trophy winner Johnny Manziel is suing a vendor for selling Texas A&M jerseys with his name and number on them. Surprisingly, the NCAA has said it will allow him to keep any damages he gains. Still, Texas A&M can make a truckload of money selling the same jerseys (without the name), and Manziel can’t do a thing about it.

As ESPN’s Rick Reilly noted, Joyce Julius and Associates estimates that Manziel is worth $37 million to Texas A&M in “free advertising.”

But he doesn’t see a penny of that.

Former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon is on a mission to change that. He has filed a class action suit against the NCAA for using his likeness in video games like the NCAA March Madness series that EA Sports came out with from 1999-2010.  Several big-name former athletes have joined in his suit, including former Alabama wide receiver Tyrone Prothro and basketball legends Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson.

Before an athlete can begin participating in an NCAA sanctioned sport, they must first sign a waiver that allows the NCAA to use their likeness without paying them. If they don’t sign, they can’t play. O’Bannon is challenging the legality of that.

And with college sports networks popping up all across the country and television deals flying out of control, O’Bannon’s suit could lead to more radical changes that might attack the NCAA’s business model at its very core.

The Southeastern Conference brings in $3 billion from its television deal with ESPN and CBS. The NCAA in 2010 agreed to a $10.8 billion contract with CBS and Turner Sports, and the Big Ten has its own television network, which generated $242 million for its members in 2011.

The players are the reason people tune in to these games, yet their only compensation is a college scholarship. Not to bad-mouth the value of a college education, but it sure isn’t worth $3 billion.

Something has to change in this messed-up business model, where college kids act as indentured servants and get by on free room and board while they pay for million-dollar salaries for their coaches and virtually print money for their athletic departments.


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