Here is something you're unlikely to hear or read about during the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, which begins today. The Collegiate Athletic Coalition (CAC), created in January 2001 by a group of student athletes at UCLA, filed a class action suit (with help from its organizing partner, the United Steelworkers) in a Los Angeles court on February 17 on behalf of some 20,000-student athletes from 144 big time college football and basketball schools who have played since 2002 and/or have college eligibility through 2010.
The CAC, whose mission statement says it is seeking to improve the conditions and lives of student athletes, is trying to get those 20,000 student athletes money from the NCAA to pay for incidentals such as travel, telephone calls, and food. The suit also seeks to prohibit the NCAA from telling member colleges that they cannot offer athletic scholarships up to the full cost of attendance.
"From day one, we saw that the NCAA took very good care of everybody in Division-1 football and basketball, except the student-athletes," Leo W. Gerard, USW international president, said in a news release after the suit was filed. "When a major football program produces annual revenues of more than $50 million, and nearly $40 million of profits, how can the NCAA tell the school that it can't provide its players, many from low-income backgrounds, with a thousand dollars or so of incidental school expenses?"
Despite the revenues, athletes are the only students subjected to restrictions in aid imposed by an agreement among universities. Students in other fields like the arts or sciences can be bid upon by individual universities, without limits on the total value of their scholarship packages.
The NCAA's current definition of a scholarship is, by its own admission, about $2,500 less than a student would have to pay to attend a given school. Costs not covered include travel costs, laundry, school supplies, insurance, and other incidental expenses.
Aside from the aforementioned limitations, student athletes are limited to a $2,000 cap on income from jobs, which leaves a good many scrambling to pay their phone bills, food bills, and other general living expenses, not to mention the cost of getting from home to school and back again.
The suit alleges that "the [grant-in-aid] cap is simply a cost containment mechanism that enables the NCAA and its member institutions to preserve more of the benefits of their enterprise for themselves."
The NCAA eliminated paying for incidentals in 1973 in a cost-cutting move. At that time, the NCAA and its members were pulling in some network and syndicated TV dollars, along with in arena revenues and sponsorship dollars. Three decades later, NCAA members are splitting $6 billion from an 11-year contract signed with CBS in 2003 for 22 different sports including the men's tournament. NCAA members are also raking in money for football from CBS, NBC, FOX, and ABC, along with a number of cable networks led by Disney's ESPN. On top of that, there's the revenue from various marketing agreements and multimedia platforms like cellular phones.
Still, the NCAA and member schools claim they need more and more to keep other sports besides football and basketball going. There is certainly enough money flowing into the NCAA, more than ever before, but many members claim they are losing money on sports programs. There are reasons for that. The most obvious are exorbitant salaries of basketball and football head coaches that reach well into six figures and top out in the millions. But one must also consider the sheer number of athletes around the country and the costs incurred for feeding them and taking them on the road.
In 2004-05 Purdue University took in more than $24 million in football revenues and spent about $2 million for football scholarships. The profits underwrite the school's other sports teams.
The NCAA's draconian rules for its performers enables it to make billions of dollars annually. The players, of course, don't get paid, put in long hours on the practice field, end up at "voluntary" off-season practices, and are expected to go to classes. They can lose their scholarships at the whim of a coach who doesn't want them or if they suffer a career-ending injury.
Without the players, of course, there are no games, there is no business. The same could be said of the coaches, but none of them are worried about paying the bills. Kentucky basketball coach Tubby Smith made $2 million last year. USC football coach Pete Carroll reportedly brought home $3 million. A study at the University of Oregon Warsaw Sports Marketing Center last year found that coaches' salaries in the Pac 10 Conference between 1996 and 2001 increased 90%. Men's coaching salaries rose 119%.
Coaches can also break contracts and end up at other schools while players have to sit out a year if they decide to change schools and lose a year of eligibility. The players, the stars of the show, get raw deals, seeing virtually no pocket money from a business that produces billions in revenue.
College presidents and chancellors (who are the driving force behind the NCAA) along with school athletic directors have a rather cavalier attitude towards the performers. The student athletes get scholarships and that is more than enough compensation for the performers.
But that's not enough for most student-athletes who have had a cap on what they can earn from a job and may not be able to get financial assistance from their parents. Coaches like Penn State's Joe Paterno and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski have said in the past that the NCAA needs to update some of its policies and allow players to earn more money from outside jobs. A student on a music scholarship does not have a salary cap and a full grant in aid to nonathletic scholarship students includes incidentals.
It's that attitude that has forced the CAC, in conjunction with their organizing partners the United Steel Workers, to file the class action suit.
Unsurprisingly, the NCAA is not commenting on the suit. It will, of course, fight it to the end. The NCAA, CBS, numerous sponsors, and marketing partners don't want to shatter the illusion of March Madness, which is supposed to be a joyous time for the schools, players, coaches, and everyone connected with a tournament game, including coach potatoes and gamblers.
The CAC doesn't want to spoil the party; it just wants fairness. The NCAA, on the other hand, wants status quo, which means making sure the players don't get their slice of the pie.