When I think about my journey and who I have become as a man, I can’t help but to think about my experiences while attending the University of Georgia. I was blessed and fortunate enough to play under head coach Mark Richt, a man who taught me the importance of character, integrity, and faith. I was able to sit in classrooms with some of the most experienced professors and students who were at the top of their classes academically. I was able to develop myself mentally and physically with the help of tutors, mentors, trainers and many others who I had access to.
Playing between the hedges on Saturdays was an experience that is hard to describe. There was nothing like the roar of the fans, the intensity of knowing that every play could make the difference between a win or a loss, and the seriousness of the opportunity it presented in order to change things for my entire family. I could try to explain what it was like as a student athlete, but no words could ever do it justice.
I love the University of Georgia with all my heart. Although there were many positive experiences, I still believe there is room for improvement in the area of collegiate sports. There has been much progress made towards enhancing the experience of student athletes, but it does not remove the experience of coming to the realization that this was and is a business. With the amount of money that is being generated through collegiate sports, the rising salaries, and the increasing cost of ticket prices there is more talk than ever before about whether college athletes should be paid or not.
It would be impossible to try and tackle the entire scope of the current situation, so for this article I would like to focus on what I feel is the real issue. The path to a better future begins with open and honest conversation about the reality. I believe that I have a solution that could not only improve the overall experience for student athletes, but it could also potentially end the argument of whether or not to pay them. I believe that solving this problem would have a much greater impact, but first I would like to share some of the experiences that have lead me to this conclusion.
There were two distinct moments that made me realize that this was no longer just a dream I was chasing or something I was doing simply for the love of the game. The first experience came after my sophomore year. I finished that season as one of the top linebackers in the SEC and I was suddenly becoming a household name. Everything on the field was going great, but off the field it was a totally different story. At this time my family was struggling and my mother was paying all the bills. My father was working at Wal-Mart after losing his business just to help out where he could. My daughter was about to be born and I was scratching my head trying to figure out how I would balance being a student, athlete, and a father.
I remember visiting the local mall as the season began only to find my jersey hanging up in the stores. I would eventually see it at Dicks Sporting Goods and at Wal-Mart where my father worked. I’m a junior, so he would frequently tell me stories about how people would look at his employee nametag with a confused look on their face and then question him just to confirm I was indeed his son. All of the hard work I had put in was finally starting to pay off, or so I thought. The excitement quickly wore off as I realized that I was not going to be getting a dime from it. My hard work would be paying off, not for me, but for many people behind the scenes that I would never meet. The reality hit hard as I stood in line to buy my own jersey for my mother. My mind raced as I wondered who exactly would be profiting off of it.
The second experience was during that same offseason when I tried to start my own business. I had already taken portions of my Pell grant along with the student loans I had received for the semester and sent it to my family in order to help them with the bills. I was thinking of more ways that I could help support my family by making passive income. It seemed like a great idea since there was no way that I could realistically get a job while training, balancing school, and doing everything else I needed to do in order to excel both on and off the field. Not too long after I announced that I was going into business, I received a call from our compliance personnel. They’re pretty much the in house police for Athletic Departments who ensure that everything and everyone operates within the rulebook of the NCAA. He quickly let me know that I was in violation of the NCAA rules and that I could not use my own likeness to promote any business. At that point I began the process of reinstating my scholarship. Those two incidents created a sense of awareness that made me question the entire system and what it claimed to stand for.
Before presenting my solution, I would like to acknowledge the side of the conversation as it pertains to why athletes should not be paid. The argument I have seen most is that college athletes receive a free scholarship. Now, when you look up the definition of free in the dictionary, what does it say? The definition I found was, “without cost or payment.” Another definition is, “not under the control or in the power of another; able to act or be done as one wishes.” In my mind, when it comes to athletic scholarships, free would mean showing up to college, attending classes, practicing/playing only when you feel like it, and going back home. That to me is a free education. Another problem with this argument is that it makes a very misleading assumption that every player who takes the field is on a full scholarship. According to the NCAA, only 56% of student-athletes at the Division 1 level receive some level of athletics aid.
It’s an amateur sport. The definition of amateur is a person who engages in a pursuit, especially a sport, on an unpaid basis. Now, as much as a student-athlete may love the sport, the main objective of attending a college as a student-athlete is to put yourself in the best position to become employable and to eventually provide for your family. Claiming that an athlete at that level is playing a sport just for the love of the game is like saying a student attends college just for the love of education. Funny right?
Another great argument is that the money would not be distributed fairly between athletes of revenue generating sports and non-revenue generating sports. What I would like to know is, in what industry or sector of our society is everyone paid the same price when they generate different levels of value? When it comes to coaching salaries, ticket prices, and merchandise everyone justifies it by preaching about the economic principles of supply and demand. My question is why should it be any different when it comes to college athletes? These are just a few of the arguments I have heard about why athletes should not be paid, arguments that are becoming harder and harder to justify.
Although many individuals may be able to argue against paying collegiate athletes, I believe there is really no legitimate argument against a player being able to use their own likeness and profit off of their own name. Imagine this scenario. Through hard work you earn the opportunity to attend college on a music scholarship and try to take a stab at performing at local bars on the weekends to make some extra money. There happens to be a national collegiate student-musicians association that prohibits you from profiting off of your name or talent, unless you are performing for your school. The music department requires that you practice six hours a day, perform concerts at filled out arenas, sells your music at the on campus stores, but God forbid that you decide to perform at a local bar for your own benefit or record your own music to sell online.
What if you were attending college on scholarship as a business student and decided to start your own business, but there was an organization that prohibited you as a part of your free education. At the same time your business school has free will when it comes to using your business ideas to generate a ridiculous profit. In some cases they even invite major corporations to get in on a piece of the action. In both situations they justify their actions by saying you were given a free education and that you are an amateur. Think about all of the amazing businesses that have been generated by amateur college students. Imagine Harvard telling Mark Zuckerberg that he had to shut down Facebook.
There have been countless athletes who have been punished for selling autographed jerseys, accepting gifts, or profiting off their own name while at the same time fans can purchase a customized jersey with their name or number on it, a t-shirt with a saying they came up with, and other memorabilia that was generated through their hard work. Everyday business owners have the luxury of being able to sell autographed pictures that a player may sign at a charity event and sell them without any consequences. The image and likeness of legendary athletes who have come through college programs like Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, Tim Tebow, and many others will be used forever. The problem with this is that many athletes never reach that legendary status and completely miss out on the opportunity to leverage their likeness and their name brand while it is most valuable. As we all know only a tiny percentage actually make it to the professional level, 2% across all sports to be exact.
Every year there are student-athletes who take their jerseys off for the last time. They immediately have to start a brand new life and reestablish credibility in an entirely new field. Most of the time they have no personal brand, no established network, no business experience, and no funds to help them adjust to their new life.
What if this could change? What if an athlete were able to build their own brand while playing at the collegiate level by having full use of their image and likeness? What if they could start their own businesses, freely create their own Youtube channels, receive endorsements, write books, or host camps in their hometown during the offseason. What if video game companies like EA Sports could produce games with the understanding that the athletes would receive a percentage of the sales in return for them using their likeness. Imagine if jerseys, t-shirts, and autographed pictures from your favorite college athlete could be sold legally with an understanding that a portion of the proceeds would go to the athlete who’s hard work generated the sale. Local businesses could host events for student athletes of every sport, which would increase the brand of the athlete, the business, and the athletic association. Non-profit organizations could leverage the influence of collegiate athletes in order to raise even more money for different causes, something that lots of them already do.
A percentage of the proceeds from the selling of jerseys, games, appearances, and other revenue generated through the athlete could go into a trust fund that the athlete would receive following their graduation. The other portion could go towards the cost of scholarships in order to help supplement the cost for players who don’t receive any scholarship funds. This would have no impact on the current budgets for the athletic departments and could actually help to close the gap for departments that claim to struggle with generating funds.
I’m sure you’re wondering how this would realistically be implemented. The athletic departments and their community relation’s staff could easily control this. When it comes to the coaches and the administration that represent college athletic programs there is never an issue when it comes to setting up appearances, endorsement deals, camps, and other opportunities for them to profit off of their platform. There should be no issue when it comes to doing the same thing for the athletes who help to generate those same opportunities. Some of the best and brightest minds can be found on college campuses. Many professors serve as thought leaders in order to drive innovation in complex industries and could easily generate a business model that creates a win-win strategy for all parties involved.
The mission statement of the NCAA is to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount. I would like to know how controlling the use of a player’s likeness refers to this mission.
Allowing student athletes to have access and control over their own likeness would be the perfect way to integrate intercollegiate athletes into higher education by allowing them to leverage their on the field brand in order to create business opportunities, build a network with those who are outside the arena of sports, and create a more complete athlete. The problem with the current system is that it indirectly promotes the jock mentality by not allowing athletes to fully expand their brand and use their platform to create opportunities that will help them become successful whether they play professionally or not. There is a reason why 78% of NFL athletes go broke or struggle financially after only 2 years of retirement and 60% of NBA players are broke within 5 years of retirement. A large reason for this is the fact that they are not being prepared at the college level to handle the demands of a professional career.
There is no way that you can expect a person to magically succeed when they have never received any exposure or experience when it comes to managing their likeness or personal brand as a business. It makes no sense. Even with the best training and preparation, once the money is in their hands there will be no reason to listen. Unless the individual comes from a wealthy family, mistakes will be made. There is no reason why any student-athlete should walk away from a college sports program after four years without having any idea of how to use their platform and influence to provide for themselves and their families.
I am reminded of the commercial for the NCAA, where they show athletes who are dressed in professional working attire to address the fact that most athletes will be majoring in something other than sports. If this is the reality, then why would you not allow these same student athletes to leverage their platform to start building their professional careers while their personal brand value is at its highest?
Rennie Curran is a speaker, personal development coach, and the author of “Free Agent” — Intangible Assets For Overcoming Adversity and Times of Transition.” You can follow him on Twitter @RennieCurran53, Instagram @RennieCurran, or visit his website at www.RennieCurran.com.