Players protest for rights, declare they are not NCAA’s property

Credit: Jim Mone

Credit: Jim Mone

Unpaid college basketball players are sequestered in Indiana for the Division I men’s tournament. Some of them are protesting “unjust NCAA rules that deny college athletes equal freedoms and basic protections.” That includes the rights to their name, image and likeness (NIL).

On the eve of the college basketball’s showcase, these players are declaring they are people with rights and not the NCAA’s property. They are highlighting how NCAA schools steal the value of their labor and marketability. The players say it’s an injustice that they are denied the same economic protections as other workers, including their fellow students.

A tweet by Rutgers senior guard Geo Baker summed up the meat of their message:

“The NCAA OWNS my name image and likeness. Someone on music scholarship can profit from an album. Someone on academic scholarship can have a tutor service. For (people) who say ‘an athletic scholarship is enough.’ Anything less than equal rights is never enough. I am #NotNCAAProperty.”

The protesting players are aligned with the National College Players Association advocacy group. They’ve joined forces to speak out. They are are not saying they will walk out. There is no threat of a work stoppage, which would have a much bigger impact than statements.

The games can’t go on without players on the court. They will go on with players protesting. NCAA officials will do some public-relations damage control while collecting about $771 million in a media-rights deal for this year’s tournament (set to increase to $1.1 billion annually in 2025). The players’ message soon will be drowned out by the buzz of tournament games that depend on their labor and marketability.

I mean that as an indictment of the system, not a criticism of the players. There are structural reasons for why a successful strike would be difficult. Powerful institutions are aligned against players. Public backlash to a strike would be fierce. The group of protesters includes some prominent players, but it doesn’t appear large enough to make a work stoppage feasible.

The players in the men’s basketball tournament are doing something that’s short of withholding their labor but still meaningful. They are advocating for their rights while taking advantage of their platforms and the intense public interest in the tournament.

Ohio State forward Seth Towns:

“The NCAA amasses over ($1 billion) a year and essentially creates an entire economy for individuals and corporations to profit from. The players, who are literally and absolutely responsible for generating this fortune, are completely omitted from profiting access — including using their own name.”

Baker’s Rutgers teammate, Myles Johnson:

“I will have made more in my intern position (than) my entire (four) years of being a NCAA athlete, in (two) semesters. All because I don’t have the rights to my own name, image, and likeness. Make it make sense.”

The players are working the system as it exists. They may not have publicity rights, but they can use publicity to fight for them. Players can’t monetize their large audience of social-media followers without forfeiting their college eligibility. They can tell their audience why that’s wrong.

The players’ list of demands includes:

  • Full NIL rights from the NCAA by July 1.
  • A meeting with NCAA president Mark Emmert.
  • Meetings with President Biden’s administration and lawmakers to lobby for health, academic and financial protections.
  • A ruling in favor of college athletes in Alston v. NCAA so as “to not give the NCAA any power to deny us equal freedoms.”

The players are just one pressure point on the NCAA system.

NCAA schools appealed to the Supreme Court in the Alston case, which is scheduled for oral arguments later this month. A judge in a lower court ruled that schools are a “cartel of buyers” that violate antitrust laws by limiting education-related compensation for athletes.

A bill in the U.S. Senate would give athletes full NIL rights with the ability to collective bargain. Several state legislatures have passed or proposed NIL laws that expand the rights of athletes. The status quo increasingly is unsustainable for NCAA schools.

They were set to adopt new NIL rules in January with “guardrails” that still would severely limit the rights of athletes. Schools halted that effort after the Justice Department warned Emmert that the new regulations could violate antitrust laws. The NCAA and Power 5 schools are seeking an antitrust exemption and spent more than $2 million lobbying Congress last year.

Players don’t have that kind of political power. They do have the power to amplify their voices. The proliferation of social media has made it simple for them to publicly criticize the NCAA system. It no longer requires media gatekeepers giving them a (filtered) platform. Athletes have their own platforms a few clicks away.

Unfortunately, NCAA schools can always count on compliant media with vested interests to undermine college athletes who advocate for their rights. Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports is among the worst offenders. In response to some players objecting to their work conditions in the bubble, Rothstein tweeted that they should be “grateful” for what they have and stop complaining.

One thing the players don’t have is a salary that reflects their market value. That’s not a problem for Rothstein, who has enriched himself from their labor. He’s paid by NCAA television partner CBS and hawks his tournament-themed merchandise at an online store.

All that makes it hard to stomach Rothstein’s hypocritical, paternal scolding of players. Iowa senior forward Jordan Bohannon’s Twitter retort to Rothstein: “In other words, ‘shut up and dribble.’” Those days are over.

That exchange shows another advantage players have with social media. They can directly challenge critics whose arguments fall apart under scrutiny. Ohio State’s Towns dismantled one of those with this tweet:

“‘Then why play?’ seems like a popular take. NCAA athletes have no choice when faced with a monopolized (functionally in this context) college athletic arena (NCAA). Players have no bargaining power, which equates to unfavorable conditions re: capital interest.”

That power differential is the primary reason that college athletes face a heavy lift with changing the system that exploits their labor and enriches coaches, administrators and schools. The NCAA’s claims of “amateurism” long have been propped up by politicians and courts hostile to labor. The Senate bill and state laws provide some hope that players finally have powerful people on their side.

The players have the power of their platforms right now. Some are using them to advocate for their civil rights when college basketball has its biggest audience. It’s not a work stoppage but, considering the forces lined up against players, it’s a powerful statement for a righteous movement.