Commentary: Student-Athletes Should Get Paid, Too

NCAA rakes in billions, and labor attorney Jeff Kessler sues to get share for players.

Posted: 03/24/2014 12:32 PM EDT
Filed Under Sports News, NCAA

Amid the racket about Warren Buffett’s $1 billion jackpot and all the hoopla about March Madness, nobody has paid much attention to Jeffrey Kessler’s lawsuit on behalf of college athletes.

Kessler, a labor attorney, filed his “player pay” action a week ago in a New Jersey federal courthouse, claiming scholarships that elite college programs brag about as payment to athletes amount to little more than beer money. While the NCAA and college sports factories rake in figures in the billions, the men and women whose sweat and toil bring in those billions get hundreds in return.

That is the worst kind of foul.

In his antitrust lawsuit, Kessler named the NCAA and the who’s who of college conferences. All have yet to say a word about his lawsuit.

Talking to ESPN last week about the lawsuit, Kessler said plenty. He wants to strike down restrictions that stop student-athletes from making money.  

"In no other business and college sports is big business would it ever be suggested that the people who are providing the essential services work for free,” Kessler told the cable sports network. “Only in big-time college sports is that line drawn.”

The line is a wide one, too. College athletic departments, university presidents and the NCAA itself have remained steadfast in defending the indefensible. Already we’ve heard of athletes starting to balk at this injustice.

In the fall, athletes at a number of football schools staged a protest, trying to get their share of this billion-dollar business of intercollegiate sports. They wanted to organize a union, trying to align their personal interests with the reality of the big money that programs make and don’t share with players.

Critics of the union movement can talk all they want about the economic value of a college scholarship, but with the high number of student-athletes who don’t graduate and the high number who graduate with degrees in nothing useful, can anybody call that a fair exchange?

Kessler refuses to. He contends the NCAA and member conferences act like a cartel; they fix the price paid to an athlete, a philosophy that runs counter to the concept of a free market.

He also talks dollars and real sense. Look, when a tournament like March Madness generates $770 million in revenue each year, players deserve a sliver of that money. For their blood, their tears and their bodies, they’ve earned some compensation and not just T-shirts, trinkets and Nike swag.

But push that thought aside; Kessler’s chief point isn’t sharing the money from these major events. No, he just wants student-athletes to be able to earn from their likenesses. They should be able to attend trade shows and pick up a few dollars for their signature, which they can’t do under current NCAA rules that bind them to indentured servitude.

No one wants to talk about that injustice, not in the heat of this fabulous NCAA hoops tournament. People just want to bask in the moment, to watch their alma mater or favorite teams chase that dream. It doesn’t matter that such dreams come off the backs of so many Black players who work for tip money.

For any student-athlete, his payment should come before he turns pro, because, as that NCAA TV ad has told us, most go pro in anything other than sports. So if they aren’t going to get rich in the NFL or NBA or Major League Baseball, they ought to get more than what they do now from colleges.

Kessler’s aim is to ensure these players do.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

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