This past summer, news broke that Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel allegedly signed autographs and memorabilia in return for money. Shortly afterwards, pictures emerged showing Manziel signing photographs for an autograph broker. This information thrust Manziel into the national spotlight, since the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) prohibits student-athletes from receiving compensation for the use of their names or likenesses. The penalty: Manziel was suspended for the first half of Texas A&M’s season opener. The reaction: a backlash against the NCAA for its seemingly arbitrary rules and its inability to justify them.
Why such a strong reaction? Manziel’s autograph scandal takes place at a critical time when two separate issues are gaining notoriety. First, the public has become increasingly aware of the harmful long-term effects of head injuries in football. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) recently aired a documentary claiming that the National Football League (NFL) has known about its concussion problem for nearly 20 years, but that the League has taken active measures to cover it up. The documentary found that, in 1994, the League created a Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee and filled it with doctors to investigate the long-term impact of football injuries on mental health. However, the Committee started with the premise that football was relatively safe, and then worked backwards to find evidence in support of this premise.
Second, the NCAA is currently embroiled in a class action antitrust lawsuit initiated by current and former college athletes who seek compensation for the use of their names and likenesses in television broadcasts and videogames. Essentially, the plaintiffs allege that the NCAA—along with the Collegiate Licensing Company and the videogame manufacturer EA Sports—unfairly prevents student-athletes from sharing in the profits gained from televising college games and from selling NCAA-themed videogames. The NCAA accomplishes this feat by citing its commitment to maintaining student-athlete amateurism, including the NCAA bylaw under which Manziel was ultimately penalized. The lawsuit prompted the NCAA to end its contract with EA Sports, but the fact remains that the NCAA makes most of its money from its television broadcasts.
Which brings us to a developing story: since the commencement of the 2013 college football season, a number of college athletes have worn armbands on game day with “APU” written across them. APU is the abbreviation for All Players United, a movement among college athletes—especially football players—protesting the NCAA’s amateurism rules and its handling of player concussions. The APU movement is organized by the National Collegiate Players Association (NCPA), and it represents an effort to show solidarity among student-athletes in the face of further NCAA rules that prohibit college athletes from formally organizing. In essence, college athletes are frustrated because they risk their bodies on a weekly basis and they do not share in the profits realized by the NCAA as a result of their efforts. If they become permanently injured, they risk losing their college scholarships and even being stuck with long-term medical bills. In the view of the NCPA and the APU movement, it is inequitable to allow the NCAA to establish rules for itself under which it receives enormous profits while student-athletes gamble with their futures.
At the very least, the NCAA needs to set forth an adequate justification for its current schema. The NCCA’s website states: “The NCAA membership has adopted amateurism rules to ensure the students’ priority remains on obtaining a quality education experience and that all of [the] student-athletes are competing equitably.” However, many commentators are not convinced that such statements provide an adequate rationale for the NCAA’s restrictive rules. Other commentators argue that the NCAA’s rules simply force amateurism violations underground. The controversy surrounding the NCAA’s amateurism rules begs the question: is there a less restrictive way in which the Association can protect student-athletes?
For now, we are left with the NCAA’s statement regarding the APU wristbands: “As a higher education association, the NCAA supports open and civil debate regarding all aspects of college athletics.” If so, the NCAA needs to participate in the debate.