NCAA student-athletes are leveling the playing field

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When I was 15 years old, I remember hanging out at my friend’s house on a Saturday afternoon, eating a boatload of snacks and playing video games without a care in the world.

The game of choice? NCAA Football 14 on PlayStation 3. It had University of Michigan quarterback — and future Jacksonville Jaguars running back — Denard Robinson on the cover. That cover image, with Robinson carrying the ball in his left hand, is forever etched in my brain.

To this day, though I haven’t played it in nearly a decade, I still remember the game’s theme music, main menu design and, especially, its outrageous game modes — including “Mascot Mash Up,” where you played a game with all the players dressed up as their school’s respective mascot.

However, as I put hours and hours of my time into what would eventually be the final installment of EA Sports’ NCAA Football series, I never realized the implications for the athletes appearing on my screen.

While the athletes weren’t listed by name anywhere in the game — or any NCAA sports game, for that matter — the character designs were spitting images of them, typically accompanying the athletes’ actual skillsets and jersey numbers.

You may have been playing as “QB #16” with a made-up name on Michigan, but it was Denard Robinson. Everything pointed to it.

According to a USA Today article from 2019, EA Sports was bringing in about $80 million in revenue for their NCAA football games in the early 2010s.

And yet Robinson — the face of the game that year — and all of the other athletes whose likenesses were used in the game’s creation, earned nothing.

The video game series, along with its basketball counterpart, was eventually put to a halt due to an antitrust lawsuit brought forth by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon in 2014 citing a lack of compensation for the athletes represented in the games.

Luckily, thanks to a variety of state laws, NCAA rule changes and a bombshell Supreme Court ruling, that’s officially changing.

On July 1, NCAA rule changes went into effect that allowed student-athletes to profit off of the use of their names, images and likenesses (NIL), meaning they can now ink sponsored brand deals and cut themselves a slice of the billion-dollar pie that the NCAA has been hogging for decades.

It’s arguably the best thing to ever happen to college athletics.

Say what you will, but this decision will only bring positives to the lives of student-athletes and to the sports themselves. And it already has.

A number of athletes have already started making moves in the new space of NIL opportunities, with University of Miami quarterback D’Eriq King inking deals with three companies already and stating that he’s been contacted by at least 50 others. But while players like King are primed for big paydays, that won’t be the case for every student-athlete on the Hurricanes roster, which is why King has suggested making paid appearances at local Miami businesses and splitting the proceeds evenly amongst himself and his teammates.

Another student-athlete, University of Texas quarterback Casey Thompson, has been making videos for fans on Cameo — a site that allows celebrities to make custom videos for people, typically used for birthday or special occasion shoutouts — where he’s charged $50 per video and donated all of his earnings to the “No Kid Hungry” campaign to combat childhood hunger.

And if you’re scoffing at the idea of student-athletes making money because you’re worried this will take away from the “purity” of college sports with athletes backing up Brink’s trucks full of cash, think again.

A recent ESPN article detailed the amount of money that the average student-athletes are estimated to bring in now that NIL opportunities have opened up.

While an All-American athlete with a massive social media following in large markets — a very small percentage of the NCAA student-athlete population — could make upwards of six or seven figures, your typical revenue athlete (sports like basketball and football) could make around $75K from brand deals and sports camps, but likely less, with non-revenue athletes (ice hockey, lacrosse, etc.) bringing in an estimated maximum of around $12K.

For most student-athletes, opportunities to capitalize on their NIL will provide a nice supplemental income of a few hundred or few thousand dollars annually, not millions.

In the grand scheme of things, that’s not much at all. And it’ll hardly move the needle in a negative direction for the NCAA and the schools themselves.

In 2019, the total reported income of all NCAA athletics departments was around $18.9 billion, and in a 2017 ESPN article, it was reported that in 39 of the 50 U.S. states, the highest-paid public employee was a college football or basketball coach. This includes some states where the coaches — such as Kentucky head men’s basketball coach John Calipari ($7.1 million/year) — are making close to $10 million while their athletes, again, make nothing.

For years, student-athletes have been barred from making a living through means outside of their sports, such as becoming a YouTube star or social media influencer, while other students in their classes are able to do whatever they want, free from consequence.

“That’s an argument I’ve heard from a lot of college athletes over the years,” Alan Blinder, a college sports reporter for The New York Times, said on The Times’ “The Daily” podcast last week. “They’ve said, ‘Look, a guy in my chemistry class or a woman in my history class could be a social media influencer and cash in. I was never able to do that because I was a student-athlete, that was the only thing that held me back.’ They’re seeing this as very much a level of the playing field.”

While NCAA student-athletes still deserve to be paid as employees of their institutions due to the massive amounts of income they bring in for their schools — and the nearly 40 hours a week they spend on athletics in addition to their school work — this is a step in the right direction.

And if you don’t have one already, it might be time to find yourself a new gaming console in the near future. Because EA Sports’ NCAA Football is coming back. Just with a little less greed.

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.


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