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Don't Hate the Player: Are College Athletes Working for a Degree or Working for a Cartel? 

Wednesday, Jul 16 2014
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Former UC Berkeley running back Joe Igber has always resisted celebrity. He's never made a Facebook or Twitter profile; his Google trail is just half a page long, starting at Berkeley and ending with the web page for his engineering startup. In college, he was famous for tiptoeing off the field after football games, often barricading himself in the library while his teammates were out partying.

Yet Igber didn't flinch when friends said they'd seen him immortalized in a popular video game during his 2002 junior year, NCAA Football.

"It was made by EA Sports," Igber recalls, "and the slogan at the time was, 'If it's in the game, it's in the game.'" EA Sports, an imprint of the Redwood City behemoth Electronic Arts, took material from real-life college football games and reinterpreted it for Sony's PlayStation. Each starting player at Berkeley had a corresponding avatar with an uncannily similar physique.

"They don't put your name on it," Igber says, "but everything else — your weight, your height, your skin tone, the scale of your height relative to everybody else on the field — definitely, it's you."

EA Sports even went so far as to mimic Igber's style of play. He was known for falling anytime an opponent so much as breathed on him (a survival tactic for a 190-pound player who understood basic laws of momentum) and his character did the same. He compensated with incredible sideways motion, and so did his character — to such an extent that teammates nicknamed him "R2" for the joystick button they used to sidle.

Despite his apathy toward PlayStation, Igber couldn't pass up the urge to play a few times. Getting picked for EA's NCAA Football series (a kid brother to the company's Madden NFL collection) was a status symbol. "Everybody knew about it, and everybody wanted to be in the game," he says.

2002, the year of his NCAA Football debut, was also the year that Berkeley's football team, the famously hard-luck Cal Bears, had a major star turn. The university had just hired former Canadian Football League quarterback Jeff Tedford to coach its beleaguered squad, which had earned only one win the previous season. Tedford led the team to seven wins and five losses, and was duly named Coach of the Year for Cal's Pac-10 (now Pac-12) athletic conference. Cal won its "Big Game" against private school rival Stanford University that year, seizing the famous Stanford Axe, and generating enough football fervor to make Berkeley resemble a Midwestern college town — the sort where team allegiances matter more than political stripes.

And naturally, players like Igber began popping up in PlayStation games, just as their antecedents — people like '90s-era Cal running back Russell White — appeared in games for Sega's older system, Genesis.

"We [the characters] all kind of looked the same," White recalls. "We were just bronze figures, all capable of doing the same moves. But if you checked the numbers on each team, you could connect them to a [real] player."

The NCAA makes all student athletes sign a form each year through which they relinquish all rights to their images, even after they graduate. Athletes and lawyers who've challenged this practice say the form is "purposefully misleading," and that the athletes have to sign it under duress. White, who is 20 years out of his college career and depicted in Sega games that are now several iterations behind the current technology, still believes it's patently unfair.

"If they're using your image, they should pay you," he insists.

That's become a point of thorny, ongoing, national discussion. And it's now being hammered away in court.

In June, the National Collegiate Athletic Association offered its first small concession. It agreed to pay $20 million to erstwhile college football and basketball players to settle a suit launched by ex-Arizona State quarterback Sam Keller, who claims that the EA Sports videogames amounted to unfair profiteering.

That deal came shortly before another trial began in federal court in Oakland, in which former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon accused the NCAA of a predatory conspiracy, commercializing the images of student athletes but denying them compensation. (O'Bannon's lead attorney, Michael Hausfeld, says it was advantageous for the NCAA to announce its $20 million EA settlement beforehand, to make it appear as though the videogame issue was resolved.) O'Bannon represents a class of plaintiffs who seek an injunction to end this practice. They demand that the NCAA enter into contracts with players upon graduation, entitling them to part of the billions in TV revenues and licensing fees that pour into NCAA coffers each year. Plaintiffs also want the association and its licensing arm to disgorge profits they've "unjustly" harvested from video games, TV contracts, sports broadcasts, DVDs of or rebroadcasts of classic games, T-shirts, jerseys, stock photos, trading cards, action figures, or any other revenue stream that deploys the athletes' image and likeness.

The trial took place over three weeks in June, in a fourth-floor courtroom where armies of lawyers debated an issue that's long overshadowed the business of college sports: Is the NCAA a well-intentioned mentorship program, or a plundering cartel? And are the athletes bright-eyed apprentices, in the same sense as, say, a violinist in the music department, or are they de facto employees who've been bilked into working for free?

Such questions are particularly unsettling at UC Berkeley, a progressive, public university that can't bear to see itself as an exploiter. Over the course of Tedford's 10-year employment, graduation rates for football players slid perilously; by 2013, Berkeley ranked last among 72 major college football teams in the U.S. The team was losing on the field, too, right as the university unveiled its $321 million stadium renovation and $153 million athletic center. Tedford was fired after the 2012 season. Then, Berkeley's Athletic Director Sandy Barbour stepped down this month, leaving behind a program walloped by controversy, and a school wallowing in debt.

The O'Bannon case remains open, and will likely be subject to lengthy appeals. If the plaintiffs prevail, though, it could turn college sports on its head. It might oblige schools like Stanford and Berkeley to make business arrangements with players, treating them as paid professionals rather than student amateurs. That might be deeply satisfying to former athletes like O'Bannon, who say they were burdened with sports full time throughout their college careers, and forced to masquerade as students.

But it could endanger the Russell Whites and Joe Igbers of the world, whose first priority is to get a degree. For them, if sports was the means to an education, then so be it. And if it required bargaining with an alleged college sports cartel — well, two could play at that game.

Joe Igber came to UC Berkeley in 1999 with a football scholarship in hand, dead-set on pursuing an engineering degree. Born in Nigeria and raised in Honolulu, he was an outlier among jocks. His father was a university professor, his mother a teacher; he attended a college preparatory school in Honolulu with robust academic and sports programs.

"Coming from Nigeria, academics was never even a question — that was always number one," Igber says. "Football was not part of anything. It was just something that coincidentally happened."

He set up his schedule accordingly. On a typical day, Igber woke up at 5:30 a.m., rushed to the stadium by 5:45, and lifted weights from 6 to 8. From there he dashed back to campus for six hours of classes. He'd return to the stadium at 2 p.m. and spend two hours watching recordings of previous games with his teammates, analyzing the plays. They ran drills from 4 until 7:30, then he'd either eat a carbohydrate-packed meal with his teammates, or run back to campus and eat dinner with friends. And then, from about 9 p.m. until 3 a.m., he'd study.

Igber slept two or three hours a night, worked throughout the day, and sometimes survived on banana bread and apple juice. He says he only missed four classes during his five years as an undergraduate.

"That was my life," he recalls, 12 years later. "A lot of the other football players had no idea I was doing engineering, a lot of the engineering students had no idea I was playing football." Igber even managed to hide his sports career from really close friends — one of them only found out after recognizing Igber's face on a Cal Bears poster.

And he wasn't the only athlete who effectively lived a double life. With sports often taking up 60 hours of the average player's schedule a week, well over the "20-hour rule" proposed by the NCAA, it's little surprise that many players struggle to compete with their peers at the university.

"[Football] was a full time job," Russell White says, remembering that he availed himself of every possible resource at Berkeley, from tutoring to the disabled students' program (he was diagnosed with dyslexia). "Some of the guys I walked in with as a freshman didn't walk out with me as seniors," he adds. "My time management was just on point."

In truth, athletes aren't just overburdened by their practice schedules. Many of them also start at a disadvantage, coming in with a lower GPA and test scores compared to other university students. (Berkeley currently has no set admissions criteria for athletes; their applications are evaluated by a committee of five faculty members and the director of undergraduate admissions.)

The university has tried to fix this problem in all kinds of well-meaning ways. Berkeley offers special tutoring services for athletes (Full disclosure: I worked as an Athletic Studies Center tutor from 2002 to 2004), along with courses like "Education 75: Introduction to Sport and Higher Education," which attempts to elevate the study of sport. Though offered to all students, these courses cater to athletes. The lectures take place between practices, and the instructors often work in the Athletic Studies Center. The center's director, Derek Van Rheenen, will teach a three-unit seminar this fall on "Theoretical Foundations for the Cultural Study of Sport in Education."

That title alone speaks volumes about Berkeley's conflicted relationship with the idea of student athletics. Teaching sports as a cultural study helps ennoble — or at least incorporate — the athletes, who've long inhabited a separate, parallel universe from other students. It also conflates sports with academics, in a way that's self-serving both to UC Berkeley (which has never advertised itself as a jock school) and to the system of college sports at large. If "sport" is a field of study, then the football team amounts to an academic department. The players, moreover, are apt pupils.

That's certainly a strong ideology at UC Berkeley, which is torn about its athletics program. Those who don't equate sports with scholarship might see the "Sport in Education" course as a way for the university to coddle its athletes — or coast them through a highly demanding system.

But many other schools have similar tactics. For years, advisers at Stanford University's Athletic Academic Resource Center allegedly passed out an easy course list to student-athletes each quarter (called "Courses of Interest"), much of it larded with introductory classes that could accommodate athletes' schedules. (The practice reportedly ended in 2011, following an investigation by journalists at California Watch.) Other schools, such as Oklahoma State University, garnered criticism for deliberately driving student-athletes into easy majors. At the University of North Carolina, athletes are reportedly steered into "paper" courses that don't require them to show up for class, and don't have a class syllabus. Often members of the athletic department oversee these classes, rather than the faculty member of record.

Drexel University professor Ellen Staurowsky describes this practice as "clustering," meaning that athletes in big, revenue-producing sports are often funneled into the same classes, residence halls, and majors, so that they become easier to manage. "It's a challenge to talk about, because it's always been a covert phenomenon," Staurowsky, who served as an expert witness in the O'Bannon trial, explains. "But at this point, almost any constituency within college sports recognizes this practice."

The problem is that the exigencies of playing Division I college football just may not provide enough time to get a real education. And not every athlete is willing to take on Joe Igber's self-punishing lifestyle.

"I remember looking at one of my résumés, and it had nothing but football on it," White says. "I didn't have internships, apprenticeships, nothing — I was just Russell White."

That realization prompted a moment of intense foreboding. What do you do, White thought, when you're 23 years old and the NFL dream is over?

Mark Lewis, the NCAA's executive vice president of championships, was the last witness called at the O'Bannon bench trial in June. When he took the stand, Lewis recounted a childhood story about his family's university-owned home, in Athens, Ga. His father was a defensive coordinator for the University of Georgia football team; whenever it had a losing streak, fans would litter the Lewis' yard with "For Sale" signs. It was Lewis' job to yank them out before his father woke up.

Football and other college sports are a form of collective identity and camaraderie in Athens. And that's not unusual for college towns throughout the country.

"It's a huge part of the Midwestern ethos," NCAA President Mark Emmert testified during the trial. "The colors of the team, the traditions, the stadiums... the rivalries built over generations." Sports form an atavistic line in many of these places, and become so embedded in the cultural fabric that the schools' seemingly frivolous trophies — the Little Brown Jug passed between the University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota, or the carved wooden turtle exchanged between Ohio State and the University of Illinois — acquire an almost spiritual significance.

NCAA administrators often play up the notion of college sports as a local folk tradition, arguing that it distinguishes them from the pros. Yet in recent years, with more college games being broadcast on ESPN, and more money being juiced from media rights and team merchandise, the pro and amateur spheres have come to resemble one another.

College conferences negotiate contracts for broadcasting and licensing, which translate into big returns. Exhibits presented in the O'Bannon trial revealed that the SEC (Southeastern Conference) made $314 million during the 2012-2013 fiscal year, up from $148 million in 2008. This year, bowl games and tournament payouts alone will reap a combined $311 million for the five powerhouse conferences — the Big Ten, the SEC, the Pac-12, the Big 12, and the ACC — according to a recent report from Forbes.

Revenue gets divided among the individual schools in each conference and funneled back into their athletics programs. This funds less-profitable or unprofitable sports (meaning anything that isn't men's football or men's basketball), scholarships, equipment, athletes' travel expenses, and coaches' salaries, which far exceed those of professors. By the time he left Berkeley, Tedford was raking in $2.44 million annually; the current highest-paid coach in the country, Nick Saban at the University of Alabama, makes some $7 million a year.

Because there's so much money on the line, and because better teams make more profitable conferences, schools have adopted an "arms race" mentality when it comes to intercollegiate athletics. (The term "arms race" is tossed around a lot in discussions of the college sports business; UC Berkeley professor emeritus Harry Edwards says he first used it back in 1983.) Schools like UC Berkeley have undertaken major stadium remodels, financing them through a combination of private donations and high-interest bonds, according to a 2009 Knight Commission report. These luxurious facilities might help raise the team's profile, or lure in desirable high school recruits.

But they leave the schools with massive debt.

That's particularly apparent at UC Berkeley, a school that, just 10 years ago, exulted in its winning football team. At that time, Memorial Stadium was packed for every game; Igber remembers looking out at the swelling crowds and wondering where the hell everybody parked.

In the years since, that team has plummeted; game attendance is down. Tedford decamped, but UC Berkeley owed him a $5.5 million buyout. And it's hemorrhaging millions more for a stadium remodel that now looks like a monument to hubris.

On a brittle night last October, Cal's loyal but penny-pinching faithful huddled together on a cliff overlooking Memorial Stadium — affectionately dubbed "Tightwad Hill," because it offers a decent view at no cost. To get there, one need only squeeze through a padlocked gate outside the stadium perimeter, snake alongside a softball diamond, dash through a rugby court, slip through another gate (eluding two weirdly unquestioning security guards), and scrabble up a rocky bluff to a makeshift picnic area littered with blankets and beer coolers. There, a small audience watched the Cal Bears get pummeled by Oregon State, 49-17, as a diaphanous fog clung to the barren stadium. The Cal band's sprightly Britney Spears medley, performed with choreographed chorus-line moves during halftime, was the undisputed highlight of the night.

"I think we've reached the nadir," one Tightwad Hill spectator slurred, doddering over the pile of beer cans at his feet. Others nodded quietly.

But losing by four touchdowns and a field goal had become a new normal for Cal. In 2012, the team had three wins and nine losses, including a humiliating drubbing by rival Stanford during the Big Game. It would be Tedford's final hurrah at a school that had once revered him. Reports of Cal's abysmal football graduation rates leaked to media the following year.

Nobody could have predicted that outcome in 2002, when the then-promising coach came onboard to whip UC Berkeley's team into shape. More disciplinarian than his predecessor, Tom Holmoe, Tedford revoked scholarships from players who were on academic probation, and instituted a pre-packaged self-improvement system called the Academic Gameplan, which was invented at his alma mater, Fresno State.

"Basically, we had to write down our classes," Igber remembers. "It actually was hindering me because it was a bunch of paperwork I didn't need to do."

Still, he credits Tedford with turning a scrappy team into an NFL bootcamp. The coach was determined to pick a team of stars — running backs like J.J. Arrington and Marshawn Lynch, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who all later went pro. In the early aughts, Tedford tugged Cal into the national spotlight and pushed his players through their course work. He stripped scholarships from average players who weren't performing in the classroom, and gave them to average students who would perform well on the field.

"He was basically looking for blood," Igber recalls.

The roster of Tedford's 2002 inaugural season lives on in EA Sports' NCAA Football 2002, which now goes for about $4 on Craigslist, or eBay, or $2 at the Alemany Flea Market. Igber has yet to see a dime in royalties.

"I wouldn't mind if EA Sports had offered a Cal internship in its marketing program," another former UC Berkeley player, Wale Forrester, says, calling the videogames a byproduct of a larger culture of merchandising. Playing for the Bears in 2003 and 2004, Forrester says he became a "brand ambassador" for Gatorade and Nike, which both sponsored the team. "We religiously wore those things," Forrester remembers. "Nike never offered me an internship for the summer."

Forrester graduated with a degree in African-American Studies, and went on to invent an athletic body wipe that can clean off sweat and dirt when a shower isn't available — he currently sells to NFL teams and universities, as well as people who bike to work. The body wipe is, essentially, Forrester's way of profiting from college football.

Now, Cal's team earns a pittance compared to other schools, and stadium debt drains nearly a fifth of the school's annual athletics budget.

NCAA officials claim that sharing revenue with athletes would present yet another great financial burden — albeit one levied on the whole organization, rather than on individual schools. If enacted, it might eviscerate the sports programs at schools like Cal, which have essentially mortgaged their futures on a temporary wave of success.

The NCAA's legal team paused, mid-way through questioning NCAA Championship VP Lewis, to play a promotional montage for March Madness, the spring Division I college basketball tournament. It showed clips of players sinking balls into baskets, bands tooting their horns on the sidelines, cheerleaders waving their pom-poms, and young men embracing their coaches — all set against a Luther Vandross soundtrack.

If the NCAA had to compensate players, then it couldn't afford to put on this beloved and widely televised event, Lewis says. And, he adds, any other championship would also be endangered.

Other NCAA witnesses claim that a revenue-sharing model would exacerbate the current university arms race. The SEC's executive associate commissioner, Greg Sankey, testified that it might create a bidding war for prospective athletes, as schools jockeyed for the ones with the highest future value. That could lead recruiters to behave in a mercenary way. Instead of lingering outside the high school library — as the University of Oregon did when he was trying to woo Joe Igber — or flying players out for campus tours — as UC Berkeley did for Russell White — recruiters might simply bribe the players with cash payments or other sweetheart deals to influence their college choice. Or worse, Sankey says, it would encourage outside boosters to step in with their own offers.

Such practices amount to "pay for play," the NCAA argues, violating the association's principle of amateurism. It could erode the healthy level of competition that currently exists between colleges. Already, schools with plumper resources get better recruits.

That of course begs the question of whether a system based on free labor is sustainable.

Lawyers involved in the O'Bannon trial still squabble over how a revenue-sharing system would work if it were implemented. Perhaps groups of athletes could negotiate their own licensing fees, or perhaps a trust could be set up to benefit the players once they graduate. NCAA officials believe that any such arrangement would be damaging; sports economists such as Staurowsky believe it would have little bearing on the universities' net earnings, overall. After all, she points out, the advent of free agency didn't have a negative effect on professional baseball once it overcame skepticism from team managers and owners, who thought their system would topple if free agent players could command higher salaries. The higher-ups often cry foul when they're asked to redistribute the wealth, Staurowsky says, but there's no evidence that paying players for their contributions in the pros has ever made a league go under.

Yet some opponents of the current system believe O'Bannon didn't go far enough. "Sure, Ed O'Bannon can sue, and we can all get $2," ex-Cal running back Forrester says. "But is the system really going to change?"

Berkeley professor emeritus Edwards concurs, arguing that any nominal compensation for athletes would only further commodify them. The only solution, he says, is to guarantee everyone a university education and diploma from the time they come in. "I don't care it if takes eight years," he says.

The NCAA is now fighting on multiple stages, with more and more athletes demanding payment for their work: The O'Bannon case is still unresolved; Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter is now campaigning for a college sports union; and the U.S. Senate is pondering whether to subject the NCAA to increased oversight. NCAA President Emmert is now in the awkward position of recasting the $900 million-budgeted college sports association as an education program.

In a surprise move, Emmert told a U.S. Senate committee last week that he too supports "scholarships for life" for college athletes, as well as better insurance packages and safety protocols. The announcement seemed like a strategic olive branch from an embattled leader.

Granted, Igber would have welcomed the opportunity for a lifetime scholarship.

His major beef with UC Berkeley came after he graduated and got accepted to the school's graduate engineering program. The university had denied him funding the first year, so Igber approached the football team's former director of student development, David Ortega, and asked to be connected with a wealthy donor. "It was nothing out of the ordinary, it was nothing that other graduate students don't do," Igber insists.

Ortega found the donor, and then asked his colleagues in the athletics program for permission to make the arrangement. They refused, citing a rule in the NCAA constitution that prohibits university faculty and staff from bestowing gifts on student-athletes after their eligibility is exhausted.

Igber was incensed.

"Here's my argument," he says, his voice still quavering, nine years later. "You have a student athlete who's completed five years of undergraduate in engineering, played four years as a starter on the football team, has never said anything against the football team and all the horrible, gross injustices we had to go through. And he gets accepted to one of the most prominent colleges in the country for a master's program. And they figure out a way to say no."

Igber ultimately did attend graduate school, funding his first year with money saved from his $900 monthly football stipends (he'd split rooms in tiny apartments for $200 a month and pocketed the rest.)

White also finished his degree in social welfare, even though it cost him his first shot at the NFL draft — and a potential $15 million contract. He remembers that everyone, from local fans to celebrity sports agents, balked at the decision.

"I had the great [agent] Leigh Steinberg calling me on the phone, saying, 'You know, Russell, you're a first-round pick. You sure you want to finish school?'"

"I had one year to really enjoy what learning was about," White says. "My prize was to get the degree."

White went on to play for the Los Angeles Rams for two years, then played on the Green Bay Packers' practice squad, then left to coach a high school team in Palm Springs. He's now the commissioner of the Oakland Athletic League.

Igber went on to launch a structural engineering firm. He never played professional football.

On the day of his last Big Game in 2002, Igber took two shots of novocaine to quell a dislocated rib, and ran a record 226 yards. He crawled up into the bleachers to watch the last four minutes, dodging fans who swarmed the field to celebrate the Bears' 30-7 win.

Later, he'd tell reporters that it was his moment to "slide off into obscurity." Cal had its axe; the team was jubilant; the novocaine was wearing off. "I just thought I wanted to disappear," Igber says, remembering the moment, years later.

And that's exactly what he did.

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Bio:
Rachel Swan has been a staff writer at SF Weekly since 2013. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

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