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Should the NCAA pay college athletes?

March 17, 2016 at 7:37 PM EDT
March Madness means a huge payday for coaches, colleges, networks and advertisers -- everyone except the athletes themselves. Although television rights for the NCAA tournament this year alone brought in nearly a billion dollars, the players won’t see a penny, and many are unhappy with the situation. Economics correspondent Paul Solman examines the cases for and against paying student athletes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Millions of viewers began tuning into college basketball’s March Madness games today. Billions of dollars are paid for the TV rights.

Last year, an average of 11 million people tuned in throughout the month. And yet one question looms larger than ever: Should the players be entitled to compensation?

Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, explores the issues this would raise. It’s part of his weekly Making Sense report, which airs Thursdays on the “NewsHour.”

ED O’BANNON, Plaintiff and Former NCAA Player: I saw myself on a video game.

PAUL SOLMAN: Former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon, MVP of the 1995 NCAA Finals.

ED O’BANNON: It was pretty cool to watch. I mean, the guy was left-handed, bald-headed. The jumper was good. So, I was very pleased about it.


PAUL SOLMAN: But the friend who showed O’Bannon the game was puzzled.

ED O’BANNON: What’s funny about it is, he says, we paid X-amount of dollars for it, for the video game, and you didn’t get one penny.

PAUL SOLMAN: It was this encounter that sparked a famous firestorm, Ed O’Bannon’s eventual 2009 lawsuits against the NCAA and video game maker EA Sports for blatant and unlawful use of student athlete likenesses to increase sales and profits, while denying college athletes any share of the revenues they generated, besides a full-tuition sports scholarship.

ED O’BANNON: Close to 15 years later, and they’re still making money off of my image. I just thought to myself, there’s got to be something wrong about this. If I was an entertainer of any other sort, would I have these same things happened to me, you know?

PAUL SOLMAN: No. You would get royalties, residuals.

ED O’BANNON: Absolutely.

PAUL SOLMAN: We’d come to find out what’s happened to Ed O’Bannon and his suit, landing in Las Vegas, passing the Strip, more decked-out than ever, winding up in Henderson, Nevada, where O’Bannon works, lives, and helps coach basketball at Liberty High School.

He now coaches the NCAA-ers of tomorrow, who, if they’re absurdly good and lucky, will play in a Final Four themselves someday. The rights paid to the NCAA to broadcast the tournament this year? Nearly a billion dollars. The players’ take? Still zero.

New York Times columnist Joe Nocera has long made the case for paying so-called student athletes. It’s starkly laid out in his new book, “Indentured.”

JOE NOCERA, The New York Times: They are fundamentally exploited by a system that makes not millions of dollars, but billions of dollars, and that enriches everybody around them except themselves.

PAUL SOLMAN: But athletes, if they make it, make millions of dollars.

JOE NOCERA: Sure. The very small 5 percent who make it from college to the pros will get — will get very rich. What about the other 95 percent?

PAUL SOLMAN: O’Bannon became one of the 5 percent. And yet, in college, he often went hungry for lack of cash.

ED O’BANNON: There were many nights when I went through the night without eating.


ED O’BANNON: Oh, absolutely.

MAN: It’s simple, gentlemen. The little things is what’s going to win us the game.

PAUL SOLMAN: Back at Liberty High, the coaches were prepping the Patriots for a playoff game.

ED O’BANNON: Do what got us here. Have some fun. Keep us winning.


PAUL SOLMAN: Kyle Thaxton is one of the team’s stars. Should college athletes get paid?

KYLE THAXTON, Liberty High School: If they’re the ones playing and doing it on the court, then they should be the ones getting paid also. It shouldn’t just be the coaches.

PAUL SOLMAN: Coaches who can make $6 million a year or more. And it’s not just pay.

RAMOGI HUMA, President, National College Players Association: In NCAA sports, you have players who can be stuck with sports-related medical expenses.

PAUL SOLMAN: Ramogi Huma, who played football at UCLA, has been doing the lonely work of organizing players.

RAMOGI HUMA: Injured players can lose their scholarships. Graduation rates hover around 50 percent amongst the sports who are generating this money, and the NCAA’s refusing to adopt the same concussion reforms that the NFL has adopted.

We’re not advocating for professional salaries and things like that, but we’re saying that, look, some of that value should be given in the form of basic protections like medical expenses and degree completion.

PAUL SOLMAN: NCAA President Mark Emmert declined an interview, but we caught up with him at a press conference.

Why not pay college athletes?

MARK EMMERT, President, NCAA: Because they’re students and they’re not employees. At the end of the day, you know, young men and women come to college because they want to get an education, because they want to participate in their sport as part of that educational experience.

PAUL SOLMAN: We relayed Emmert’s response to Ed O’Bannon.

ED O’BANNON: The way that they run their business — and that’s what they’re doing, they are running a business — you can’t possibly do that and think that your employees, because these athletes are employees, they aren’t — they shouldn’t get paid. That to me is mind-boggling.

PAUL SOLMAN: But it was time for the tipoff. In the playoff game, the home team seemed comfortably ahead. But big-time college sports is rarely comfortable, says Joe Nocera.

JOE NOCERA: Really, being an athlete on a campus is a full-time job. The NCAA rules say it’s only supposed to be 20 hours a week, but if you go on a road trip, they only count the time you’re on the floor. So, when you’re in the airplane, when you’re in the hotel, that doesn’t count.

PAUL SOLMAN: And on campus:

JOE NOCERA: You have weightlifting in the morning. Then you go to some classes. Then you have got practice. Then you have got more strength training. Then you have got enforced study hall. You know, you go to bed at midnight, you get up at 6:00, you do the whole thing all over. It’s a full-time job.

And not only that. Let’s be honest. There’s a cartel that is suppressing the wages of a labor force, if you want to think about it in economic terms.

PAUL SOLMAN: “Cartel?” we asked the NCAA’s Emmert.

MARK EMMERT: He’s allowed his opinions.

PAUL SOLMAN: Turns out it’s not just the NCAA that has a problem paying players, though.

Cardozo Law School Professor Ekow Yankah:

EKOW YANKAH, Yeshiva University: The more and more we treat them as young minor league professional athletes, the further they will get from the other things that we find valuable about college.

PAUL SOLMAN: Or, as Liberty High senior Kahlil Derouen put it:

KAHLIL DEROUEN, Student: We don’t want the importance of being a student to be diminished more.

PAUL SOLMAN: Moreover, Ekow Yankah asks, if you pay basketball, football and baseball players:

EKOW YANKAH: What does that mean for our water polo team? What does that mean for volleyball? There is a dangerous line here where the very natural thing to do would be to have three revenue-generating sports and get rid of all the others.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, Professor Yankah has an alternative for athletes who aren’t students.

EKOW YANKAH: If there are young people who are not at all interested in being student athletes, and their life’s project is to develop their particular athletic talent, there ought to be professional developmental leagues into which they can go.

PAUL SOLMAN: Right now, of course, the main option for young basketball players remains going to an NCAA college.

Do almost all of them think they are going pro, that is, people who play in Division I college, let’s say?

ED O’BANNON: In my experience, yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: And it’s a delusion right?

ED O’BANNON: It’s a delusion, but I think it’s the right delusion. You have to think you’re going to go in order to get there.

PAUL SOLMAN: OK, so what happened to O’Bannon’s Liberty Patriots? Hoop dreams dashed, theirs and by this time ours, they wound up losing 67-61.

ED O’BANNON: As the coaching staff, we tip our hats to you guys, because you played hard all season.

MAN: What you guys did today and these previous four years, you will get to further your education, and get it paid for. That’s the goal.

PAUL SOLMAN: And maybe even getting paid extra in cash.

And so, in the end, what’s happened to the lawsuits? Well, EA Sports actually settled for roughly $60 million, with thousands of players, past and present, getting, on average, about $1,600 each, the money finally awarded just this week.

In 2014, the court ruled the NCAA’s refusal to pay players was an antitrust violation, and also ordered up to $5,000 per student athlete be put in trust for using their likenesses. But the NCAA appealed, and the money award was reversed.

And so, this Tuesday, O’Bannon’s lawyers asked the Supreme Court to review the case.

In Henderson, Nevada, this is economics correspondent Paul Solman for the “PBS NewsHour.”