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Don't Hate the Player: Are College Athletes Working for a Degree or Working for a Cartel? 

Wednesday, Jul 16 2014

Page 4 of 5

Still, he credits Tedford with turning a scrappy team into an NFL bootcamp. The coach was determined to pick a team of stars — running backs like J.J. Arrington and Marshawn Lynch, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who all later went pro. In the early aughts, Tedford tugged Cal into the national spotlight and pushed his players through their course work. He stripped scholarships from average players who weren't performing in the classroom, and gave them to average students who would perform well on the field.

"He was basically looking for blood," Igber recalls.

The roster of Tedford's 2002 inaugural season lives on in EA Sports' NCAA Football 2002, which now goes for about $4 on Craigslist, or eBay, or $2 at the Alemany Flea Market. Igber has yet to see a dime in royalties.

"I wouldn't mind if EA Sports had offered a Cal internship in its marketing program," another former UC Berkeley player, Wale Forrester, says, calling the videogames a byproduct of a larger culture of merchandising. Playing for the Bears in 2003 and 2004, Forrester says he became a "brand ambassador" for Gatorade and Nike, which both sponsored the team. "We religiously wore those things," Forrester remembers. "Nike never offered me an internship for the summer."

Forrester graduated with a degree in African-American Studies, and went on to invent an athletic body wipe that can clean off sweat and dirt when a shower isn't available — he currently sells to NFL teams and universities, as well as people who bike to work. The body wipe is, essentially, Forrester's way of profiting from college football.

Now, Cal's team earns a pittance compared to other schools, and stadium debt drains nearly a fifth of the school's annual athletics budget.

NCAA officials claim that sharing revenue with athletes would present yet another great financial burden — albeit one levied on the whole organization, rather than on individual schools. If enacted, it might eviscerate the sports programs at schools like Cal, which have essentially mortgaged their futures on a temporary wave of success.

The NCAA's legal team paused, mid-way through questioning NCAA Championship VP Lewis, to play a promotional montage for March Madness, the spring Division I college basketball tournament. It showed clips of players sinking balls into baskets, bands tooting their horns on the sidelines, cheerleaders waving their pom-poms, and young men embracing their coaches — all set against a Luther Vandross soundtrack.

If the NCAA had to compensate players, then it couldn't afford to put on this beloved and widely televised event, Lewis says. And, he adds, any other championship would also be endangered.

Other NCAA witnesses claim that a revenue-sharing model would exacerbate the current university arms race. The SEC's executive associate commissioner, Greg Sankey, testified that it might create a bidding war for prospective athletes, as schools jockeyed for the ones with the highest future value. That could lead recruiters to behave in a mercenary way. Instead of lingering outside the high school library — as the University of Oregon did when he was trying to woo Joe Igber — or flying players out for campus tours — as UC Berkeley did for Russell White — recruiters might simply bribe the players with cash payments or other sweetheart deals to influence their college choice. Or worse, Sankey says, it would encourage outside boosters to step in with their own offers.

Such practices amount to "pay for play," the NCAA argues, violating the association's principle of amateurism. It could erode the healthy level of competition that currently exists between colleges. Already, schools with plumper resources get better recruits.

That of course begs the question of whether a system based on free labor is sustainable.

Lawyers involved in the O'Bannon trial still squabble over how a revenue-sharing system would work if it were implemented. Perhaps groups of athletes could negotiate their own licensing fees, or perhaps a trust could be set up to benefit the players once they graduate. NCAA officials believe that any such arrangement would be damaging; sports economists such as Staurowsky believe it would have little bearing on the universities' net earnings, overall. After all, she points out, the advent of free agency didn't have a negative effect on professional baseball once it overcame skepticism from team managers and owners, who thought their system would topple if free agent players could command higher salaries. The higher-ups often cry foul when they're asked to redistribute the wealth, Staurowsky says, but there's no evidence that paying players for their contributions in the pros has ever made a league go under.

Yet some opponents of the current system believe O'Bannon didn't go far enough. "Sure, Ed O'Bannon can sue, and we can all get $2," ex-Cal running back Forrester says. "But is the system really going to change?"

Berkeley professor emeritus Edwards concurs, arguing that any nominal compensation for athletes would only further commodify them. The only solution, he says, is to guarantee everyone a university education and diploma from the time they come in. "I don't care it if takes eight years," he says.

The NCAA is now fighting on multiple stages, with more and more athletes demanding payment for their work: The O'Bannon case is still unresolved; Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter is now campaigning for a college sports union; and the U.S. Senate is pondering whether to subject the NCAA to increased oversight. NCAA President Emmert is now in the awkward position of recasting the $900 million-budgeted college sports association as an education program.

In a surprise move, Emmert told a U.S. Senate committee last week that he too supports "scholarships for life" for college athletes, as well as better insurance packages and safety protocols. The announcement seemed like a strategic olive branch from an embattled leader.

Granted, Igber would have welcomed the opportunity for a lifetime scholarship.

His major beef with UC Berkeley came after he graduated and got accepted to the school's graduate engineering program. The university had denied him funding the first year, so Igber approached the football team's former director of student development, David Ortega, and asked to be connected with a wealthy donor. "It was nothing out of the ordinary, it was nothing that other graduate students don't do," Igber insists.

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.


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