Fair Play? College Athletes Think Not

The National Collegiate Athletic Association is a money machine.

The group has a $6 billion, 11-year deal that gives CBS broadcast, Internet and merchandising rights. Kentucky's John Calipari, the highest-paid coach in college basketball, has a $31.65 million, eight-year deal that includes perks such as two automobiles, a country club membership and a $3 million golden parachute if he is fired.

College coaches are often among the highest-paid school employees. In the six marquee conferences, coach salaries average $1.2 million. Most schools have lucrative television and marketing agreements with networks and shoe and apparel companies.

Although a student cannot use his or her own name, photograph, appearance or athletic reputation for gain, the nonprofit NCAA and colleges across the country continue to earn money by marketing the likenesses, player numbers and videos of their "student-athletes" long after they have left school.

A class-action lawsuit led by former UCLA player of the year Ed O'Bannon seeks to change that. O'Bannon, who also led UCLA to a national championship in 1995, seeks monetary damages for the NCAA's use of former athletes' identities in the sale of DVDs, EA Sports video games and ESPN Classic reruns.

A district judge denied the NCAA's motion this week to dismiss the lawsuit, opening the door for the first peek ever into the business practices of the country's most powerful collegiate sports entity.

Schools and the NCAA argue that the students' focus is on education and that they leave with a degree that allows them to be productive citizens and earn a living. But only about 69 percent of players in the two big sports -- basketball and football -- graduate. African-Americans, who make up 87 percent and 67 percent of the NBA and NFL, respectively, graduate at rate of about 55 percent. Further, Sports Illustrated reported that 78 percent of NFL players are bankrupt or financially strapped after two years of retirement and 60 percent of NBA players are broke within five years of retirement.

Olympic Precedent

O'Bannon, 37, led UCLA to a national championship in 1995. He was drafted 9th in the NBA draft but failed to find a home either with the Nets, Mavericks or Magic because of his size and bad knees. Instead, he played for teams in Italy, Spain, Greece, Argentina and Poland until he was 30. After retiring, he attended he University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to finish his degree and became a car salesman for a Las Vegas dealership.

By contrast, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, hardly a household name, will take home a $4 million bonus in April. That's on top of $5.8 million in bonuses received in 2006 when his take for the season exceeded $7 million.

About 1 percent of college athletes make it to the professional ranks. Each Division 1 men's basketball team is allowed 13 scholarships, for example. Players are under strict regulations designed to prohibit them from receiving compensation.

Many of these students come from poor backgrounds. In a well publicized incident, Chris Porter, a senior and star basketball player at Auburn University in Alabama, was suspended for accepting $2,500 from a sports agent to keep his mother from being evicted from her home.

After making the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior and having his team picked to win the NCAA championship, Porter, 31, was suspended for the last eight games of his college career. He was drafted late in the second round in 2000 and had a short-lived career in the NBA. He has recently played for the Chinese Basketball Association.

The NCAA prohibits current and former athletes from being paid for NCAA-licensed products, part of the $4 billion college-licensed industry. There is a precedent for migrating the college sports model from an exploitive one to a compensatory model. Olympic athletes received no pay until the 1970s when rules were relaxed, first to allow players to have money put into trusts until they were no longer amateurs, and later until there was no distinction between amateur and professional athletes in the Olympic ranks.

I believe we should be able to figure out ways to allow players to share in the profits they help generate without ruining the higher-education system.

As the law of the Old Testament states: "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn."

The work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Larry Woodard is president and CEO of Vigilante, a New York-based advertising agency that develops consumer-centric advertising campaigns. He is also chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies New York Council and the recipient of many prestigious industry awards, including two O'Toole Awards for Agency of the Year, the London International Award, Gold Effie, Telly, Mobius, Addy's and the Cannes Gold Lion. A blogger and a frequent public speaker, Woodard enjoys discussing the intersection of media, politics, entertainment and technology.