‘Schooled: The Price Of College Sports’ – Breaking The NCAA ‘Amateur’ System

As Schooled documents, many college athletes don’t have money to eat, yet their schools are raking in revenues from their athletic departments.

EPIX re-aired Schooled this month in light of the National Labor Relations Board’s decision to classify football players as employees of the university.

To speak further about the issue, I got to interview Sonny Vaccaro, an advocate of student rights, longtime sports marketer and subject featured in Schooled. Vaccaro referenced Ed O’Bannon’s class action lawsuit against the NCAA for using images of the athletes for commercial purposes without compensation. The case is just now proceeding to trial starting June 9, after being filed in 2009.

Further examples from Schooled include Kent Waldrep, a Texas Christian University running back paralyzed in a game in 1974. TCU stopped paying Waldrep’s medical bills after nine months, claiming he was injured as a student participating in extra-curricular activities. Waldep continues to require assistance to this day and lost claims for worker’s compensation. So, armed only with my knowledge of what I saw in Schooled, I asked Vaccaro for more clarifications on some of the issues raised against the NCAA.

CraveOnline: I can understand, legally speaking, how a school can get away with classifying their athletes as amateurs and volunteers. When it comes to the media, the media has contracts. How do they get out of paying athletes likeness rights for video games and merchandise?

Sonny Vaccaro: Well, that was one of the first questions I posed a long time ago. In order for the university or the NCAA, whoever that second party is, they have to have a release by somebody that they can use images and any other likeness situation. They either coerce by asking an athlete to sign a release or they just did it without permission. It’s impossible, legally impossible, to use someone’s image forever. It’s not a First Amendment thing. It’s nothing other than basically stealing the individual’s rights, of personal rights.

So when they get a kid to sign an athletic scholarship contract, they also include a likeness release?

They do that in many ways. Some of them are more personal when they do it once they’re under contract, within a contract itself, they assume the rights of everyone. By their very basic contract, whether it’s prior to them playing in games which would be the scholarship form itself or the release once the games or the bowls or whatever they’re appearing for, to they have signed releases up to actually going on the court and going on the field too. Most of the time, they never had any release. They assumed they had the right to do that and that’s why they used in the O’Bannon case, [they said] they own him in perpetuity. They assume they always had the rights. The only thing I can say is by the written statement or whatever, or just the assumption, whether it was written down granting them under pressure, or just assuming they had them which they certainly only assumed in the ‘70s and the ‘80s before all this became a multi-billion dollar industry.

Did a lot of student athletes sign likeness rights away without even knowing what they were signing?

I’m saying to you, in my experience over these many years with the athletes, none of them really understood what they were signing because there was no one explaining what they were doing. You’re playing on a team, you’re playing for good old state university. If you were going to play and you were going to go on television, you just signed it over. All you want to do is play in the game or retain your scholarship. I would say 99% of the kids I’ve talked to over the years never even knew they signed them away.

I was shocked that they weren’t given at least money for meals. Even if they were not being paid for their athletic services, they’re not at least given per diem for travel? Or does a scholarship not include a dining hall meal plan?

It differs first of all from school to school. Your high priority schools basically have a much more lucrative budget for taking them to a restaurant. However, it is very hard to describe, because the kids at Grambling pointed it out very well when they said that they very, very seldom ate in a cafeteria. I mean, there aren’t all these beautiful facilities you see across the landscape of college athletics. That’s where the public is buffaloed. It’s not a universal situation. They don’t go to training rooms, all of them. Some of them have no training room at all. It’s a mirage. It’s an attempt to pretend to the public that they have per diem and all that. Basically, per diem in Los Angeles is quite different than a state college of Montana. It’s an unstable financial statement. What I’m trying to paint for your audience is it varies from place to place and a kid is the least knowing of what is right or what is wrong. You’ve heard many times that there’s nothing in the refrigerator. On the traveling thing, all the kids don’t go eat at the gourmet restaurants. I’m just going to be blunt about it. Some turn around after a game on a bus and go home. It’s such a vague way the NCAA presents things but it’s not equal. That’s my argument. There’s no set number. There’s no $100 per day you can do what you want with, eat a meal or save the money. That’s not happening, that’s my point.

You’re saying not every school has a dining hall?

I’m saying this to you. There may be kitchen dining for the whole student dining, but like most of your great universities, the main ones we’re talking about making the money, have their own sit down meal, family meal with the athletes. They have their own cooks and all that sort of stuff. The whole student body, there’s a student union everywhere I’m sure. I don’t know, but I would believe there would be. That isn’t the same as the training meals. It is quite different you have steaks or whatever you’re having and the other guy has Hamburger Helper.

The harder thing to explain is this: the difference between Division I Alabama and Division I Alaska, just giving you an example, the way the athletes travel, the way they’re grouped, however that is, is lightyears away. That’s the inconsistency and the problem with the NCAA. When they speak to the general public, they say they educate or they give scholarships to nine zillion athletes. Well, that’s not true. What they don’t say to you is nine zillion outlets, I will grant them they give 95 to a football squad, most of your major guys do, but they certainly don’t give 95 full grant-in-aids to the guys at Appalachian  State. And all the athletes, including men and women, don’t get full scholarships in swimming, in track and field, in fencing. That’s a misnomer.

They throw a phrase out like “we give scholarships.” They give you the $75,000/year scholarship to go to Northwestern, a private institution, but what they don’t do is tell you if you’re in state at the University of Illinois, your portion isn’t that. Or it’s a public university. In state students vary from about $20,000 for the cost of attendance scholarship than it does for an out of state student, but they categorize it all in one. Their numbers are always flummoxed to the public. It’s not a real number. When you read that in the paper, it’s not real. University of Texas’s education is valuable, but it’s not as expensive if you come from Texas which 90% of the football players do come from Texas. They’re only paying themselves on these athletic scholarships, you know that.

I was just shocked the athletes couldn’t eat. Seems they won’t have much of a team if the athletes aren’t fed.

They don’t eat in the sense that there’s not enough money to eat. Especially with Arian [Foster] and the kids who have talked, it’s an everyday occurrence at these schools. They go back to that cost of the scholarship, $80,000 which no one can seem to agree on. That’s such a minor thing. They don’t eat in an orderly fashion or to buy themselves subsistence when they’re in their apartment or when they’re on the road. What is $20 to one is like $13 to another. It’s very hard even in my explanations, I know what the problem is and I know what you want me to tell you, but the scale varies from the University of Alabama to the University of Appalachian State.

I’m saying to you it’s a myth how they portray this to the general public. They don’t all eat steaks. Some eat hamburger, some eat Hamburger Helper. When they travel, some of them fly charter when the game’s over on their plane, the other ones ride a bus. They get a package lunch inside there. Kentucky Fried Chicken, or whatever it is, I’m not saying it’s bad but that’s my point. The public does not see the accommodations for the athletes at the higher level and the ones in the middle, but the NCAA expresses to the public how good they are for all athletes. They are not. Some of them don’t eat regularly. Some don’t get meal money on the road. Grambling specifically said that and other schools like that.

They showed one coach’s door with a sign that said “Attention NFL Scouts I will not discuss the following players.” Is that a straight up blacklist?

It’s not a straight up blacklist. What it is is the crutch used by the university, the NCAA itself, the coaching staff. I assume you’re talking about the guys who want to be unionized, who want to be recognized, Arian Foster being one of them in that particular documentary. So they always blame the outliers, the ones who complain as being disgruntled, uneducated, pissed off. They always show the side of the athlete that questions the authority of the NCAA as being illiterate, all these other things. They portray him in the worst light, so that’s why you would see “I don’t want to be bothered with this” statements. Now today, more sinful than that, are a number of your high profile coaches, especially football coaches don’t even know what’s happening in the unionization of the athletes at Northwestern. You can’t possibly tell me that these supposedly educated human beings don’t know what’s happening in that case because it’s the talk of the country.

If they incorporated play for pay, wouldn’t that increase the motivation of athletes who wanted to make it to the team and make that money?

Well, pay for play is a misnomer. This is not something that is reality. Pay for play in all these lawsuits and the stipend is different than playing for pay. The stipend is a human thing. What Ramogi [Huma] and the unions ask for is cost of living the scholarship doesn’t cover which is sinful in itself. The pay for play is basically, everything in the O’Bannon case is once these kids have played, they can’t use me anymore. They’re going to get paid after they’re there. An incentive would be if you’re not a kid who goes professional, which the NCAA uses as a crutch all the time which 99% of them don’t, it’s quite obvious. If you graduate, then you would be getting the percentage of the revenues you helped generate. That is certainly an incentive to graduate because you’d basically get a going away bonus, like they do their coaches. Has anyone noticed that they give their coaches bonuses for achieving certain things? We’re saying you go to college, you play on these teams, when you leave you’re going to get some of the money you helped earn. That’s basically the premise from our side. Their premise is they say it’s pay for play. It’s not pay for play. They don’t get paid until it’s over. That’s a PR move by the NCAA that the public’s grabbed hold of. It’s a misnomer.

Getting paid after they graduate wouldn’t help them for four years.

No, but what is the point here? The point is they are earning the money they earn while they’re in school and we’re allowing it to be deferred until they’re done so they can maintain the sense of balance. It rewards, it gives incentive to kids who aren’t going to be pros to continue on because you’re a part of this team and you’re going to get part of the revenue. It’s just an idea that’s floated but it is something if you do it, if you’re the average guy on the team, you’re the guy that just goes here that aren’t going to be professional athletes, then you’re going to get a kickoff when you graduate, when your class graduates. You’re going to get something, and they’re entitled to that. They earned it.

In the Kent Waldrep case, I was shocked the college could get out of medical liability. Even if it’s an extra-curricular activity, it’s a college sponsored extra-curricular activity, right?

I would believe that would be true and you’re right in your assumption, but the factories are there, the BCS schools, the ones in Final Fours, they are there to monetize their athletic department either by winning and advancing, or by getting alumni who are wealthy alumni.

Still, if Kent played for the college football team, how can they say they’re not responsible for his injury?

Because in the contractual agreement on the scholarship it basically says you’re terminated.

You play at your own risk?

Well, that’s what it said. That’s how Kent explained that and it’s still happening. A lot of the athletes are changing some of it now because of the O’Bannon lawsuit. That happens everyday. That’s happened. If you’re in school and you get hurt walking down the steps… The athletic department refused to recognize concussions until yesterday. That’s my point. They had the right to do that.

Kent wants it classified as workman’s comp, but I’m hung up on basic medical liability if an injury happens at an institution.

Basically, you signed whatever. I can’t answer that. You have to call the SOA and ask them why they never had all inclusive. Why? I don’t know why. I know what the bias is. They’re not going to pay for it. They never have until recently. They’re starting to understand. That’s a question to them. My statement on that has been the same statement on all things they do. They set their own rules. You abide or you don’t play. That’s basically what they’re saying.

What can sports fans do to help reform or help take care of the athletes they want to watch or admire?

Sports fan can’t do anything other than understand that the model that they’re playing under is not what they’re portraying to the average person who just wants to be a fan and support their school. The model of the NCAA is virginity. They’re not virgins. That’s my point. I said this 10 years ago. This whole thing of amateurism is disgraceful in the very sense of it because amateur is not a word that exists in the human race. It doesn’t apply to anybody. It was a made up word to separate the peasants from the elite in England in the 1800s. That’s well documented. Even the original athletes that ran the Olympics out of Greece were rewarded for winning by getting a new pair of sandals or something. That’s been documented also.

Amateur separates the peasants from the men who run it, the elite. They’re saying to you, we’re going to keep you a virgin. They are forcing that on the athlete. That’s the sin of the NCAA is the word amateurism. The only defense they have is amateurism. Does anybody not understand what they’ve done? They’re using one word to defend a multi-billion dollar empire and the word is given definition by them, not by others. Amateurism, if they are amateurs, why aren’t the paid employees of the university? Why doesn’t the athletic director be an amateur? Why doesn’t he do this for something he enjoys and work for room and board? Why is the coach paid? No one’s an amateur except the guy who provides the money and the very basis that they can say that, the way they say scholarship, they way they say per diem, the Pell Grant.

They’re using Pell Grants as a form of payment. Pell Grants have nothing to do [with sports]. A Pell Grant can be applied for both you and me who do not pay for the athletic team. If your parents didn’t have enough, you could apply to the Pell Grant and get some more money to add to your education. They say their athletes can do it also. That’s pay. That’s a trick. They’re under scholarship because you told me they were under scholarship, Mr. NCAA. See, the whole scholarship thing, the whole per diem thing, it all comes down to pay no matter what any intellectual wants to describe the method of it. It’s pay. They’re giving you more money to subsist. When they’re saying to you, “Come to our school and we’ll subsist you. We’ll feed you.” They don’t need a per diem if you give them enough to cover. They don’t need a Pell Grant if you pay for everything.

By their own words, they choke but no one questions their own words. Why does an athlete have to subsist? They shouldn’t have to be given per diems. They should be given enough that they don’t need a per diem. When they recruit you, they are recruiting you by inducing you to come to their school to play in their football team, not to go to algebra class. You’re getting this scholarship for this physical and mental ability you have. They’re saying, “Come here.” The first thing they do is tell them how big your stadium is, where you play, how many games are on television, how many guys you got in the pros. So by the very fact that they take you on the tour shows you that they should take me over them. It’s all an inducement. No one questions it. It’s an inducement.

If fans boycotted, would it send a message to the NCAA?

Fans don’t give a crap about this to be very honest with you. The fans just want to watch the games. They’re not going to boycott. They’re not. They’ve been fed this open opportunity to support their teams. There’s not enough time. There’s a new guy every year in college. In professional there isn’t. The turnover is too great. They’re already talking about next year’s teams that are going to be in the Final Four. This year’s teams didn’t even play yet.

That’s my take. I think fans should care if they’re funding this system.

They should but they don’t. You’ll see that in the results of some of these polls. They don’t give a damn. They just want to see the games. Every commercialization of this tournament and these games are made by outsiders, whether it’s all the guys doing the fantasy basketball brackets or whatever it is. It’s all dependent on these athletes. The fans don’t give a damn how the athletes got there. They just want to know if they’re there for kickoff on Monday night. The fans aren’t going to boycott. They have a nice thing going.