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Sports commentators debate the issue of college pay for student athletes during ESPN College Gameday activities at Northwestern University earlier this fall.

Analysts debate how athletes can get a piece of the multimillion dollar NCAA pie as court reviews class action status

by Nikitta Foston
Oct 29, 2013

new mo money

Nikitta Foston/MEDILL

Several alternatives to the current NCAA model have been proposed to allow athletes to receive compensation.


Christine Brennan is a USA Today columnist, author and commentator for ABC, CNN, PBS and NPR.


J.A. Adande is a senior writer for ESPN, frequent panelist on ESPN's Around the Horn, author and former columnist for the Los Angeles Times.


LZ Granderson is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN The Magazine,, columnist for and adjunct professor for sports journalism at Northwestern University.


Steve Weissman is an anchor and host on ESPN's SportsCenter and also appears on Outside the Lines, College Football Live. He is a member of ESPN's Interactive Tennis Coverage.

"What's right and what's wrong with college sports is the NCAA. The NCAA is doing a crappy job of recognizing where society is today."

That’s LZ Granderson, senior writer and columnist for ESPN The Magazine and columnist for
The NCAA was founded in 1906 to protect young people from the dangerous and exploitative athletic practices of the time. But the National College Players Association, an organization advocating for college athletes, isn't buying it.
The association and the Drexel University’s Sport Management Department released a study that showed " that the NCAA uses amateurism as a tool to deny billions to athletes in revenue per year that they would otherwise receive in a fair market."

Senior writer for and frequent panelist on ESPN's Around the Horn, J.A. Adande said, "Amateurism went out the door when they started selling TV rights at $750 million. That's ridiculous. Why is it so bad for them [athletes] to get paid? You don't have to pay them, but let them get paid."

In a move no one expected – not even Northwestern coach, Pat Fitzgerald – clean-cut Wildcats' quarterback Kain Colter spoke out publicly on behalf of college athletes, without ever saying word. The two wristbands he wore during a September game with the letters, APU, representing "All Players United," said it all.

That type of unity among players, former players more specifically, resulted in a landmark $40 million settlement from video game manufacturer, EA Sports last month. Headed by former basketball star Ed O'Bannon, the antitrust suit sought compensation for the use of the former players' images and likeness from EA Sports and the Collegiate Licensing Company, which represents the NCAA and member schools.

Next on the agenda is a ruling by the court about whether to grant class action status to the player's claims. If granted, the new status would open the financial floodgates, adding thousands of former and current players to the equation and damages, should the players win, well beyond the billion-dollar mark.

The amount of possible damages is staggering, but according to recent estimates, so is the revenue for the NCAA.
Estimated earnings for the NCAA, according to its website, are expected to reach $797 million in revenue this year, of which, $712 million is projected to come from media rights payments; including an extensive 14-year, $10.8 billion agreement with Turner Broadcasting and CBS Sports for rights to the Division I Men's Basketball Championship.

Mounting dissent over NCAA policies that restrict pay for student athletes has prompted a range of models to overhaul the current system. (See chart)

A panel of sports journalists debated those models during a panel at ESPN's College Gameday festivities at Northwestern earlier this fall.

This popular notion of allowing the athlete to get paid for their likeness or image is at the heart of the O'Bannon case. "I like the model where you can sell yourself," said Steve Weissman, anchor and host at ESPN. "This is Johnny Manziel's time to make money. If he wants to sell Johnny M. T-shirts, he should be able to sell them."

"There's a disconnect between the presidents and the athletic programs -- and the NCAA," according to Gene Cross, head coach of the NBA Development League's Erie BayHawks, an affiliate of the New York Knicks.
"Presidents worry about the bottom line, money and making sure their schools are sustainable. A lot of that comes from athletic programs, especially for larger schools," Cross said. "I do think that at some point, certain NCAA member institutions are going to step away and have their own governing body."

Prior to his coaching posts, Cross recalls recruiting student athletes and witnessing their economic need.
"From that standpoint, I used to think there should be a way to provide some assistance to these players. But from an administrative standpoint, not all student players produce revenue. In fact, the majority of athletic programs don't make money. They lose money."

USA Today columnist and author Christine Brennan said of the proposed college model, "If we pay for football players, we have to pay field hockey athletes. You must have proportional pay. How can universities pay all athletes given these economic times?"

Class-action status for the O'Bannon case may be the game changer if the models, rhetoric and debates on whether to pay or not pay and whether these models, or those to come, will fit into the game. Consider this halftime.