You hear the pleas from some student-athletes at the Honda Center for the cash cow NCAA tournament, and you feel horrible for them.
Heartfelt, personal stories about not having enough money at the end of the month to pay for food. Tales about having to borrow a few bucks from teammates, or worse, having to call home to beg to a single mother who struggles to put food on her own table.
Then you hear their teammates’ and opponents’ satisfaction with the status quo, and you feel worse.
Walking into four college basketball locker rooms on the day Peter Sung Ohr, regional director for the National Labor Relations Board, announced a ruling that Northwestern University football players were employees of the school and were able to vote to unionize — a vote Northwestern announced it would appeal — I expected to hear cheers of joy and songs of freedom. Wednesday’s was a landmark announcement, one that signaled yet another beacon that the cartel that is the NCAA is soon going to be broken, and that the years of schools and conferences getting fat off the backs of young athletes who are paid little more than tuition, training, food and board were going to end.
Then I spoke to nearly a dozen players from some of the most successful college basketball programs in the country, and I learned that they’ve been beaten down by a system designed for them to keep quiet, too afraid to truly fight for what they’ve earned, worried about rocking a boat on which they are clearly third class.
The Titanic had less of a caste system than the NCAA, yet some of the players in Anaheim felt fairly compensated for the time, work and bodily risk they put in.
“We know what we’re getting ourselves into,” said San Diego State’s Skylar Spencer. “We’re putting up with it now so that at the end of the day we can be successful.”
Two Baylor players were in agreement. Kenny Chery said he’s “happy with what we have,” particularly compared to low-major programs, while Royce O’Neale added, “All the time we put in, the hard work, it’s worth it — we get to achieve accolades, we get rewards, we get to register for classes early.”
As if that’s fair pay for the millions that the Bears basketball program has brought in over the last five years, which included three Sweet 16 runs.
A report by the financial website NerdWallet.com concluded that the average player on a Top 25 team is worth $456,957 to his university, based on 2012-13 figures. An average Arizona player is worth more than $700,000. So too, is the typical Wisconsin Badger. Based on win shares, the report calculates that Nick Johnson is worth more than $2.2 million to the Wildcats athletics department and the university.
Meanwhile, a 2011 study by USA Today found that the value of an annual college basketball scholarship equates to more than $120,000, which includes not only the obvious necessities like room, board and training, but things like access to elite coaching and academic counseling, medical insurance and treatments, media training and free game tickets and gear.
“A lot of people have a lot to say about college athletes — and we’re put on a stage for them to scrutinize us — but they have no idea,” said a different San Diego State starter who wished to remain nameless. “Countless hours, every day, for practice and school. Countless hours into our body. It’s not all fun and games. We’re not swimming in a pile of money and shopping every day.”
That is perhaps the most disappointing disparity between fact and reality — many college sports fans and officials argue that any extra money would go into unnecessary luxuries, that major college athletes are trying to get rich on the public dime.
Couldn’t be further from the truth.
“The main thing I tell people is all we really need is enough to buy our groceries and be stable,” San Diego State’s J.J. O’Brien said. “Enough so that my mom doesn’t have to help me when she’s already struggling. A lot of parents help, and they need to keep their money for them. It’s not like we’re asking for an astronomical amount of money — just enough to help out.”
That’s the thing you hear time and again from these players, who, with their hulking stature and stage presence often appear well beyond their years.
They’re not in this game to get rich — not yet, anyway — but they do long for the simple joys for which any college student longs.
It’s hard to count how many of these guys said they just wanted enough to take a date to a movie, or, as Arizona’s Brandon Ashley said, “We are going from check to check to make sure we can pay rent and eat decent. Nobody is looking to be greedy. We’re not trying to go out and buy a lot of shoes and clothes. It’s more to live comfortably.”
Isn’t that a reasonable request from a guy whose team might win Tucson a championship it so desperately desires?
Does that sound like a selfish request for someone whose jersey you wear?
“There have been times when right before we get paid, it’s been real tough,” Spencer said. “Real tough. Times when you have to skip a few meals. It’s hard on rent. If I had an extra $2,000 or so, I wouldn’t complain. I’m not a real big spender. I’m tight with my money, but I wouldn’t complain.”
That’s the problem.
They should be complaining.
They should be loud, and they should be ferocious, and they should fight for what is theirs.
Wednesday’s ruling was a big step, but it’s not far enough. Someday soon, you hope.