Redefining the 'college athlete': Could it work?

Story highlights

  • Reformists and the NCAA support idea of giving NCAA an antitrust exemption
  • NCAA wants the protection from antitrust lawsuits
  • Reformists support conditions like shorter seasons and coaching salary cap

(CNN)What if the college basketball season had to be kept to one semester? Or if coaching salaries were capped -- far below the multimillion dollar mark -- to match the highest-paid professor?

And what if, in exchange for that, athletes would stay amateurs and college sports might actually resemble the college experience?
It's idealistic, and it might not catch on being such a drastic reversal of collegiate sport culture. Proponents of this idea admit that.
    But, they say, they're not ready to let go of the concept of "the college athlete," even if it often feels like a myth. So they're pushing for Congress to take the drastic move of granting the NCAA an antitrust exemption, with the conditions that the NCAA would have to provide athletes certain health benefits, cap expenditures and restore an emphasis on education.
    The idea has created a divide among National Collegiate Athletic Association critics.
    An antitrust exemption would allow the college giant to operate as a legal monopoly -- just like Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League.
    The leagues set rules, and athletes are bound by them with little recourse.
    But many believe that giving the NCAA so much power through an antitrust exemption would put athletes in a much worse position than they are now.
    It would effectively end much of the litigation the NCAA is facing over paying athletes. It may even reverse the landmark ruling last summer in the Ed O'Bannon case, the former UCLA player who sued and won a $5,000 per year stipend for athletes based on the use of their images. The NCAA appealed O'Bannon and a decision is expected this summer.
    Former UCLA player Ed O'Bannon sued the NCAA over the use of athlete's images.
    Lawsuits building on the O'Bannon win are lined up against the NCAA, which is one reason the organization is also pushing for an antitrust exemption.
    Ken Starr -- former federal judge and U.S. solicitor general and now president of Baylor University and outspoken supporter of the NCAA on Capitol Hill -- said some university leaders believe it would be good for the NCAA because the exemption would stay off more lawsuits.
    "The idea of the antitrust exemption is to allow the industry to be self-regulated and not to be resolved in courthouses," he said.
    Donald Remy, the NCAA's chief legal officer, said the NCAA has not lobbied for any change in the law.
    "Any consideration of a limited antitrust exemption is a conversation that needs to occur within our membership before lobbying for a change," he said.
    Last year, President Mark Emmert told The Wall Street Journal that he could envision winning political support for an antitrust exemption.
    But no one on the NCAA side has mentioned support for conditions -- such as limits on coaching salaries, playing time and more academic standards. Those aren't part of the NCAA's plan.

    Reformists want conditions

    Hence, the very large divide.
    Reformists say they only support the idea if it's conditional -- written to mandate that NCAA schools reduce commercialization and expenditures such as big-ticket coach salaries. The idea is to give the NCAA an antitrust exemption as a means to restore academic integrity -- which many feel has been lost in big time college sports, where millions are brought into big time universities and then major paychecks are doled out to coaches instead of more benefits for athletes.
    "The biggest problem in college sports right now is spiraling coach salaries," said Tom McMillen, a retired congressman who played in the NBA and is on the board of regents for the University System of Maryland.
    The 20 highest-paid college football and basketball coaches in Division I athletics each make more than $3.2 million. The highest paid is Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who reportedly rakes in $7.2 million in salary alone, not including endorsement deals. Alabama's Nick Saban is the highest paid football coach, making nearly $5.4 million before perks and third-party deals, according to the organization, The Best Schools.
    The rising salaries have played a major role in the argument for paying college athletes.
    "These coach salaries are aggravating the issue because players are saying, 'How could these coaches make all this money and we get nothing?' " McMillen said.
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    An antitrust exemption could come with other conditions, too, such as confining each sport season to a single semester and requiring athletes who are admitted with low reading levels to sit out their freshman years. Another provision would place academic assistance outside of the supervision of athletic departments. All are large-scale, fundamental changes in the way athletes would be governed.
    "I don't think the NCAA can be fixed because of who is running it," said Donna Lopiano, the former director of women's athletics at the University of Texas and founder of Sports Management Resources.
    "What needs to happen -- take the power away from the member institutions. Someone has to say: These are the conditions under which to operate. Congress has the power to do that," she said. "...Think of the academic pieces that could fall into place if we returned athletics to what it should be."
    McMillen was the first to suggest an antitrust exemption for the NCAA, which failed.
    At the time, McMillen says he wrote that it would be 25 years before the idea became popular. He nearly hit the bull's-eye.
    Proponents are lobbying for a blue ribbon presidential commission to study the idea for a year and make a recommendation.
    "It's kind of a radical idea because you're taking an organization that already has a lot of power, and you're saying let's potentially make it more powerful by giving it an antitrust exemption," said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts. He has been writing about and analyzing college sports for years. "We don't have all the answers, and it's important to have a commission where you can have people sit down for a year and think about what makes the most sense."
    In June, U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pennsylvania, introduced a bill that would create such a blue ribbon commission, but Dent said he believes an antitrust exemption is a hard sell to Congress.
    "My sense is that an antitrust exemption would be difficult to grant given the experience with Major League Baseball and that's led to an arms race of different sorts. So I've seen that experience, and I'm not thrilled with it," Dent said. "I just believe an antitrust exemption is going to be a very high bar."
    A conditional exemption might not be met with favor by the NCAA member institutions either -- it comes as they've been moving toward more autonomy. This is the opposite of autonomy.
    Starr said a presidential commission will just delay the process. He wants Congress to consider the antitrust exemption sooner. With all the pending lawsuits, time is not on the NCAA's side.
    "I think there are definitely needs for change. There's no question in my mind that we could do a better job with respect to student athlete welfare, and some of those reasons have to do with restrictions and regulations," he said.

    Antitrust exemption: Problem solver or creator?

    Among reformists, this idea of an antitrust exemption, even a conditional one, has caused a split. The Drake Group for Academic Integrity in Collegiate Sport lost several members when it endorsed the idea.
    "It's deeply troubling to me," said Ellen Staurowsky, professor of sport management at Drexel University in Philadelphia and a longtime NCAA critic.
    Staurowsky worries that this is the NCAA's response to the slow success of athletes gaining rights through court cases.
    "To respond to the very, very slow steps toward progress that are being forced by these lawsuits, to impede that progress with the possibility of locking athletes into this arcane system that does not represent their interest, I think is deeply worrisome," she said.
    University of Michigan sport management professor Rod Fort said it's simply too favorable to the NCAA.
    "I don't see the upside. I only see a downside," he said. "It's not going to work like the rest of the world works. Athletic directors are not profit maximizers ... The university is constantly deciding how to spend the money, and it's not according to market forces."
    The National College Players Association -- behind almost every single effort to get college athletes compensation -- takes the stand that an antitrust exemption is a terrible idea.
    "This is an attack on college athlete rights. Period. To strip them of the protections of antitrust laws -- the same laws that every other citizen of this country is protected by," said NCPA President Ramogi Huma.
    "Coaches -- they are completely asleep at the wheel. They think they're untouchable, but they're not. They will be in the same place as college athletes because the universities will have the power to cap coach salaries and ban third party sponsorships."
    Huma said he fears it could reverse the benefits of an optional $5,000-a-year stipend for athletes, won in the O'Bannon suit. That ruling is under appeal.
    "There was no progress until these lawsuits," Huma said.
    But proponents of the exemption say this seems like their last shot at preserving the traditional college athletic system, before succumbing to the controversial idea of a minor league for some sports to feed professional teams -- an idea that means paying athletes, and also means complicated challenges, such as athletes paying taxes on their incomes, and donors losing tax exemptions.
    Fans may not like it, and it could lead to profound changes for generations of sports culture.
    "There's a branding issue that could have a small effect or a large effect," Zimbalist said. "Are they still the Michigan Wolverines? Do they still play in that stadium?"
    Proponents say an antitrust exemption could save everyone the hassle by establishing strict rules.
    "The last thing I would want to do is give the NCAA a free pass or a blanket exemption," said Brian Porto, assistant professor of law at Vermont University and Drake Group proponent of this idea.
    The idea he said, is to save the notion of the "college-athlete."
    "I guess I haven't given up on that yet," he said. "And maybe some point we will. I'm not ready to give up on college sports with an emphasis on college."