NCAA Athletes Won’t Be Stuck in the Seventies

            I gave up on Facebook a few years ago. But every once in a while I saunter back over to see what’s going on in that part of the world. An old friend of mine who knows a thing or two about basketball and firefighting posted an article recently describing how Jim Boeheim, the legendary coach of the Syracuse University men’s basketball team, believes that college sports are changing for the worse.

            I first took notice of Coach Boeheim in 1979 when the Orange played UConn in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Syracuse won that day, and UConn didn’t get around to turning the tables until the Dream Season in 1990. Boeheim has been the head coach at Syracuse since 1976 and has won more than a thousand games.

            The college sports landscape has changed radically since Coach Boeheim started patrolling the sidelines. Revenue from college sports has exploded as basketball has moved from a regional product to a national and international one.

            Last week Boeheim went on a rant decrying the state of college athletics. He said that college basketball is an “awful place” and that various competitors have “bought” their teams. He said it is only going to “get worse.”

            Boeheim is of course complaining about the fact that college athletes have finally gotten some leverage in the college sports revenue game even though the table remains strongly tilted in favor of the colleges, broadcasters, and corporate sponsors.

            But finally with NIL (name, image, and likeness) legislation, college athletes have been given limited opportunities to cash in on the success and notoriety they have achieved by virtue of their unique talents.

            For years coaches, universities, media networks, and corporate sponsors have cashed in, riding the talents and the backs of the athletes who have been shackled by arcane rules that were invented before college sports became a billion-dollar empire.

            Still, the NIL market has not evolved in a way that benefits a large number of college athletes financially. The NCAA has placed rules and restrictions on athletes and forced colleges to be uncooperative in assisting athletes in finding revenue streams. The playing field remains tilted.

            I know that I am biased, but the one true way that these athletes will finally get the bargaining leverage they need is by allowing them to unionize the same way that major league baseball players, NFL football players, and NBA basketball players have been allowed.

            College athletic purists have decried that college players can now act as free agents, moving from one school to another year after year as they seek better playing and promotional opportunities while trying to build a brand and prepare for a professional career here or overseas. I say more power to them. Without the athletes and their talent, no college sports market exists.

            In every other part of the entertainment industry – and make no mistake that this is entertainment and not academics – the talent takes nearly half of the revenue because the talent makes the market. Why should college sports entertainment be any different?

            Jim Boeheim is going to have to adjust because the market is not going back. Nor should it. It is an exciting time to be a college athlete. And it is about time.

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