By Jo Mathis
Paying college athletes a salary for their services in addition to the scholarships they already receive would have dire consequences for college athletics and is impractical, given how few sports actually create revenue in university programs, Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon says.
Brandon was among those sharing his insight and expertise on the challenges facing big-time college sports during a panel discussion at The Washtenaw County Bar Association’s 24th annual Bench/Bar Conference held recently at Travis Pointe Country Club.
Besides Brandon, panelists included University of Michigan Sports Law Professor Sherman Clark and Eastern Michigan University Football Coach Ron English.
The first question posed to the panel regarded Ed O’Bannon, a former NCAA basketball player for the UCLA Bruins named as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the NCAA for allowing his likeness in a variety of products, including to be used in video games.
The class action lawsuit argues that former student athletes should be entitled to some of the revenue that flows from the use of their images after they leave the team.
Clark called it a fascinating, important case that could have a profound impact on college sports.
Clark said college football is the only vehicle for people who want a professional football career, while hockey and baseball players don’t need to go through college to get appropriate training.
“The question of college football and whether it’s fair for players that money is made through an endeavor in which they participate is closely connected to the fact that college football is a very effective minor league system and training ground for the very profitable National Football League,” Clark said.
He said the original O’Bannon case has been expanded to include not just former, but current athletes, and that it’s possible the case could be resolved this summer.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how this case unfolds and what effect it ends up having on college sports,” he said. “It could be enormous.”
Brandon was asked if the case kept him up at night.
“There’s a lot of other stuff that keeps me up at night ahead of this one,” Brandon said. “This has been in the courts for years. It’s probably going to be more years.”
He said people need to understand that the NCAA is not some third party creature that’s been imposed on universities.
“We are the NCAA,” he said of its member schools.
“So all the legislation and all these activities are really being driven by the universities. This is why we have an NCAA. This is a challenge. I agree that if this were to prevail, it would have a catastrophic impact on college sports. Catastrophic.”
Paying athletes is not feasible, he said.
“We have 900-plus athletes at the University of Michigan, and there may be two of them— maybe three of them—who have, quote unquote, commercial appeal,” he said.
The other 897 are student athletes who love what they do, but couldn’t get an agent to sign them, much less generate a high-income commercial opportunities.
“We sold a lot of Number 16 jerseys this past year,” he said, referring to celebrated quarterback Denard Robinson.
“I can’t imagine Denard going into a huddle and saying, ‘My agent just got me a million dollar contract. Be sure and block for me well, you guys that aren’t getting paid anything. Because I don’t want to get hurt.’”
He said there are no resources to pay players and still provide revenue-sharing to the various athletic teams that do not make money.
At the same time, Brandon said he only wants athletes at U-M who want to be there.
“If Trey Burke has an opportunity to make a fabulous amount of money for he and his family and leave the University of Michigan, at the end of the day, that’s a decision he and his family have to make,” said Brandon. “I don’t know that there’s some third party in Indianapolis who should make it for him.”
At U-M, only football and basketball make money, while men’s ice hockey almost pays for itself. Those sports subsidize all the other men’s and women’s teams at U-M.
“We have 31 teams riding on the backs of two programs,” Brandon said. “It’s all about football.
“And the reason it’s all about football is because that’s what you all have an insatiable appetite to watch and to attend,” he said.
“There’s a reason why we put 112,000 people in that stadium … You love it … The networks know it ... That’s how the ball keeps rolling.”
English said EMU would likely have to end its football program if the players were paid. He said he runs a strict operation in order to keep players out of trouble.
“As a coach, I don’t want to have a lot of interaction with the law, except that they know they have my full support at all times and that we’re going to be transparent,” he said.
Brandon said athletes are held to a higher standard than other students, an idea drummed into him when he played football under Coach Bo Schembecher.
Today’s social media —and the fact that everyone is walking around with recording technology — means it’s more important than ever for players to keep on the straight and narrow.
“We say, ‘Here’s the deal,’”, Brandon said. “Other students don’t get flown around on chartered aircraft. Other students don’t get apparel provided. Other students don’t get to compete in the best facilities in the country. Other students don’t get free tutors and free academic counselors and academic support and buildings that are built to help you be academically successful. Other students don’t get free access to trainers and doctors and strength and conditioning coaches and nutritionists and massage therapists and sports psychologists.
“You do. In return for that, you better damn well behave.’”