Should College Athletes Be Paid?

As private enterprises capitalize on their use of student/athletes as marketing symbols, the question of whether or not they should receive royalties lingers.

Public and private universities are non-profit organizations.  Only about 10 athletic departments in the NCAA actually generate revenue for their respective universities and the rest operate at a loss.  The benefits are that university athletic departments attract national and international attention through the media (“increased brand recognition,” in marketing terms), complement a university’s reputation and prestige, and both enhance and reinforce the student experience.  Meanwhile, there are numerous tangible benefits for a company like Electronic Arts (EA Sports) that profits from its creation of exciting and realistic video games, such as “EA Sports NCAA Football.”

Amateurism in American college sports dates back to the early 19th century and keeps a higher degree of romance in sports.  Today, endorsements and co-branding – among other marketing tactics – have changed the way college athletics function and amateurism is no longer as prevalent as it was 200 years ago.  We certainly cannot argue against the old paradigm that holds that “times change.”  Yet, as cultural norms change, so must the systems that unite the interests of those who make them work.  In this case, the current system that allows the NCAA and companies like EA Sports to develop products featuring the likenesses of student athletes that add marketability and thus generate sales must be adjusted to ensure that no stakeholder – least of all college student/athletes who are in the midst of shaping their seemingly uncertain futures – is left at a relative disadvantage.

(see for a long list of examples of how important cover art is to the game’s identity… though some are not official releases, you can see how student/athletes are used to sell games such as EA Sports NCAA Football)

They look exactly like the real players, don't they? (except for the numbers on the jersey nameplates that replace their real names)

The solution – on the surface, at least – is not too complex.  As it stands, the NCAA prohibits student/athletes from receiving consideration of any kind from third parties such as agents, scouts, or others (see the recent Reggie Bush scandal at USC and current investigations of the University of Florida, University of North Carolina, and University of South Carolina by the NCAA for more examples.)  While the student/athlete attends his respective institution, it makes sense for the NCAA and the university to shun a world that has nothing to do either with a formal college education or amateur sports.  A student/athlete’s uncertain future after college, however, is not at all eased by the tiresome job search that follows years of preparation.  Indeed, wallets are usually light after graduation.

Therefore, the NCAA would serve its student/athletes who appear in video games well by allocating a modest percentage of the royalties received from the sale of EA Sports NCAA Football to a trust.  All featured universities would be entitled to an equal share of the trust fund and would disburse their share to former student/athletes who appeared in the game version sold that year and either graduated, or used up their eligibility and are no longer students.  Each athlete would receive an equal amount that they could use as financial support during the job search that follows graduation or separation from the university.  Though final distributions to student/athletes would not be very large, questions regarding the ethicality of use of player likenesses in video games would lead to less controversy since all stakeholders (i.e. the video game distributor, promotional partners, NCAA, universities, and student/athletes) would benefit from the popularity of products like EA Sports NCAA Football.  Even from a marketing standpoint, EA Sports and the NCAA would benefit from aligning the sale of NCAA Football with a greater purpose (an increasingly effective marketing tactic): helping student/athletes who are not offered professional contracts get a head start on life after college.

If such a program existed, it would give me a reason to answer “yes” to the question at hand.  Amateurism ought to

Looks like Tim Tebow, doesn't it?

be respected by sports properties, participants, and brands who contribute to a sport’s existence.  This does not mean that all parties but one involved in a business relationship should profit, though.  The arrangement I propose would not involve giving current or former student/athletes Hummers, houses, or excessive amounts of money; rather, it would grant reasonable and modest financial assistance to the student/athletes who added value to a video game when the time comes to look for a job and make their professional dreams come true.


Number 4 looks like Damien Williams, doesn't he?

Without player likenesses or even random generic characters who resemble the real players in every way but in name, EA Sports NCAA Football would not be nearly as popular nor would it offer the same high quality medium for direct fan engagement that university marketing departments and sponsors/partners like ESPN appreciate.  As lawsuits generate unwanted publicity for the NCAA and developers who create college sports-themed video games, the controversy worsens over a growing crisis in collegiate athletics.

In the August 2-9 2010 issue of Sports Illustrated (p.86-87), former Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Ken Ruettgers talked to writer Phil Bencomo about some of the difficulties in transitioning to a post-NFL career.  It may be inferred that student/athletes face similar challenges after they leave the playing field for the last time.  From a marketing, public relations, and altruistic perspective, it makes sense for the NCAA to create a small trust fund for student/athletes featured in video games that would help with the transition from college to professional life.  Without much financial security, a trust fund set up by the NCAA would go a long way toward helping former student/athletes featured in EA Sports NCAA Football adjust to life after classes and games.

Cam Suarez-Bitar.

One last note on an unrelated topic.  Just a day ago, a pregnant Florida Panther was struck by an automobile in South Florida and recovered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  She is being nursed back to health, but her three cubs did not survive.  As a species, the Florida Panther is fading fast, with roughly 80 left in the wild.  Please drive carefully and contact your local authorities if you see an injured animal by the side of the road in need of help.

Thank you for your readership.

Former Green Bay Packer Ken Ruettgers, creator of "Game's Over," a non-profit organization that helps athletes transition from life on the field to new careers.

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