WASHINGTON — If Tim Tebow's No. 15 jersey is flying off the shelves in Florida, shouldn't the Gators' quarterback be getting a cut? Or if Sam Bradford's big day on the field piles up tons of points in a for-profit online fantasy game, shouldn't the Oklahoma QB receive some of the reward?
The well-worn debate over exploitation of college athletes had a different vibe Oct. 27 at a regular meeting of the reform-minded Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Before it was over, Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti had banged his fist on the table in ire at the NCAA, and several people had suggested creative ways to pay athletes.
Fantasy leagues, which have long been synonymous with pro sports, have started to invade college turf. CBS Sports announced this year it would revamp its college fantasy game by using names and stats of individual players. The NCAA's response was to send a letter asking that the practice be stopped. CBS Sports responded by citing a recent 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that said fantasy leagues' use of such information is protected by the right of free speech.
"The student-athlete has been given a scholarship and not made one single nickel," said Buoniconti, who is on the board of trustees at the University of Miami and a Knight Commission member. "They put many, many millions of dollars in the coffers of the universities, and yet no one is willing to go out for them and protect them. I just think it's time for the NCAA to review what [its] purpose in life is."
"It is clear in my mind that an athlete owns his own likeness and image and everything that goes along with it," Buoniconti said. "[The NCAA] basically came in lukewarm by just sending a letter, not taking the position that we are going to litigate this if we have to. It doesn't make any sense. It's really hypocritical."
NCAA vice president Wally Renfro had already agreed with Buoniconti's position on fantasy leagues. Renfro said the NCAA felt that use of a college athlete's name and likeness violated its rules and pushed collegiate sports further down the road toward professionalism, but he said the NCAA couldn't take any action unless directed to by its member universities.
Responding specifically to Buoniconti's outburst, Renfro said: "I appreciate the passion, but I think that no matter how passionate you feel about this, I've yet to hear a good argument that the association has the legal standing to do this."
Then there are those jerseys. Tebow's actual name might not be on the No. 15 royal-blue Gators jersey that's on sale, but it's obvious that he's the one associated with it. Under the NCAA's rules governing amateurism, he's not allowed to receive a penny of the proceeds.
"In the spirit of the presidential campaign this year, take the additional revenue and spread it around," said witness Jeremy Bloom, who lost a battle with the NCAA to keep his football eligibility at Colorado after taking endorsement money as an Olympic skier.
None of the witnesses or commission members expressed a desire that student athletes be paid outright. Instead, several suggested the athletes' earnings could be put in a trust fund that they would receive upon completion of their eligibility. Others said athletes could receive financial incentives for postgraduate work or some other non-monetary benefit while at school.
However, Northwestern president and commission member Henry Bienen pointed out that top athletes already receive tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships, tutoring and other services not available to the general student population. Giving the athletes more, said Bienen, might cause resentment toward athletics to reach the "tipping point" at some schools.
Buoniconti, who played at Notre Dame, didn't buy that argument at all.
"That's bull," Buoniconti said during a break in the meeting. "We earn every single nickel of that scholarship. We put the seats in the stadium. We put the seats in the skyboxes. What do you think the TV networks are showing? Are they showing the president of the university, or are they showing the athletes on the field?"