College basketball and football players are being fleeced. As they put their bodies on the line day in and day out — often suffering catastrophic injuries and brain-damaging concussions — the NCAA and various regional sports leagues squeeze every cent out of these “amateur” student-athletes’ labor, and make billions of dollars off it. The players, though, are penalized for selling autographs or making money off their social media or YouTube accounts.
Where I’m from, we call that a hustle. It’s a scam. And one man, LaVar Ball, the brash basketball dad, has proposed a new professional sports league for standout high school basketball stars that could upend it all – either because it ends up working or because it forces the NCAA racket to finally change its ways.
On Tuesday, Ball announced his intentions to start the Junior Basketball Association or JBA. A league with 10 teams of eight young players each, salaries for each player would range from $3,000 to $10,000 per month. It’s a brilliant gambit. High school basketball is already so popular that some high school stars, including Ball’s own children, have hundreds of thousands — and sometimes millions — of followers on social media. Highlight videos regularly have millions of views on YouTube, and bootleg livestreams of competitive games featuring emerging stars regularly go viral.
Because of an agreement between the NBA and the NCAA, high school athletes are no longer allowed to do what Kobe Bryant or LeBron James did and go pro straight out of high school. They must play a year of college or overseas basketball before they can be drafted. Only a tiny percentage of American high schoolers take the overseas route first. Instead, they are doing something that is now routinely called the “one and done.” This is when high school stars go to college where they attend for a year – playing basketball – then declare themselves eligible for the NBA draft.
Unlike semi-pro athletes, students aren’t paid a dime.
The top universities are fully aware that these star athletes have no intention of staying. These educational institutions — and granted tax protections because of that designation — completely violate their mission when signing such athletes and running such programs. In essence, top programs are being treated like semi-pro leagues. Players are practicing five times a week, traveling and playing 30 to 40 games in just a few months, conducting interviews, attending charity events, all while being expected to somehow maintain some type of academic integrity. Unlike semi-pro athletes, however, students aren’t paid a dime; they can’t even collect money in any way connected to their work on the court.
A few decades ago, the hustle was a bit easier to swallow. Brands and corporations had hardly gotten in on the act, coaches were well-paid but not yet filthy rich, and TV contracts weren’t anything like they are now.
Today, in 39 different states, college sports coaches, not governors or college presidents, are the highest-paid public employees. In most states, it’s not even close. In Michigan and Kentucky, states often said to have struggling economies, college coaches are being paid over $7 million per year by the government. In Kentucky, in contrast, Gov. Matt Bevin made just about $140,000 last year. Now the argument could easily be made that those coaches lead teams that generate hundreds of millions of dollars for their universities. Let’s agree on that. These coaches also make millions of dollars in lucrative endorsement deals, ranging from long-term contracts with major brands to commercial deals with local car dealerships.
And that doesn’t even count the money that sports bring to the NCAA itself. The collegiate sports authority just signed an $8.8 billion extension with CBS to broadcast the NCAA tournament every March. The deal was already worth $10.8 billion and was scheduled to run through 2024, but the new arrangement extends the contract through 2032. Consider this: Most of the players who will be in that tournament in 2032 aren’t even in kindergarten yet.
UCLA — where Ball’s oldest son, Lonzo, played for a year before going pro — just signed a record $280 million contract with Under Armour, the largest shoe and sports apparel deal in college sports history. As a result, players must wear one brand and one brand only throughout their time on the court. Often, teams are literally selling jerseys and gear with the team numbers of the most popular players on them. Teams also sign endorsement deals dictating what players will drink during games, where they will go to the doctor, what airline they will travel on, and so much more.
But if the athletes who are generating these funds even accidentally cross the line to get a microscopic piece of the pie, they are routinely kicked off teams, put out of programs, blacklisted, and have their scholarships taken from them. It happened earlier this year when Donald De La Haye, a kicker for the University of Central Florida’s football team, was deemed ineligible, then lost his scholarship, because of a small amount of money he made off his YouTube channel.
Just a few years ago, Todd Gurley, now a running back and MVP candidate for the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, was suspended indefinitely by the University of Georgia and the NCAA for receiving $400 to autograph some memorabilia. He was literally paid a measly $5 per autograph and it ended his college career. The coach at Georgia makes $3.8 million per year as his base salary alone. These coaches live in mansions, drive luxury cars, and hang out with celebrities all over the world.
For years, hungry college athletes were suspended for taking too much free food after burning thousands of calories in games and practices. In 2013, the NCAA finally relaxed the rules on how much food players are allowed to eat and how much free food they can accept. Yeah, really — that’s how wild this situation is.
Any student on campus other than college athletes can sell their signatures, get free food from anyone and everyone, sign endorsement deals, and transfer to or from any college of their choice. NCAA student-athletes literally have fewer rights than students because they participate in a system that brings their schools more monetary benefits than many of the other students on campus.
What Ball is aiming to do is what the NCAA should’ve done a long time ago: provide talented high school basketball stars with a way to play the game and make some money.
What Ball is aiming to do is what the NCAA should’ve done a long time ago: provide talented high school basketball stars with a way to play the game and make some money, while preparing for the NBA or leagues around the world.
The argument that it’s too complicated to pay college athletes is hypocritical. Complex problems are routinely solved whenever those with the power feel motivated to do so. If colleges and universities don’t have the intellectual heft to crack the code on how to compensate players, maybe they shouldn’t be in the education business.
Then there’s another issue: Is it not strange that young athletes in almost every predominantly white sport in America can go pro whenever they feel like it?
High school tennis stars routinely go pro. Golfers, too. Even young baseball players can go pro without ever going to college. But a big-money market doesn’t exist for college athletics in those sports. Somehow, with basketball and football — dominated by black athletes, craved by millions of fans — youngsters must wait before they can go pro.
So it makes sense that Ball, a black man who had rejected mainstream athletic apparel companies and started his own apparel company, would be the one to start a new league that blows the lid off the profit motive of college sports. These rules don’t exist to protect the players. They exist to provide colleges and corporations with billions of dollars.
Let the players who want to go pro do it. LaVar Ball is giving them a good place to start.