The term “student-athlete” has repeatedly come under legal fire in recent years. Thousands of current and former college athletes contend that it unlawfully constrains their legal rights.
Should college athletes, who in some cases “work” more than 50 hours per week, be classified as employees? Should they be able to sign licensing agreements with third parties, including video game publishers and trading card companies, so that various products sought by consumers can feature those athletes’ names, images and likenesses? Should they be able to retain agents for negotiations with third parties? Alternatively, should athletic scholarships account for players’ capacity to generate sizable revenues for their schools? Should those scholarships reflect how colleges aggressively compete by spending millions of dollars on everything around the players—the coaches, stadiums, arenas, training facilities, equipment, apparel, academic support and so on—but not on the players?
The focus of those questions is on what might be owed to college athletes. In other words, they concern the athletes’ legal rights to gain compensation beyond their grant-in-aid. A grant-in-aid includes tuition, fees, room, board, course-related books and other expenses up to the value of the full cost of attendance.
A different question about amateurism has surfaced at the campus of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. It’s about what college athletes might owe their school.
As detailed in a story by Kevin Foote of The Advocate, UL head football coach Billy Napier recently announced a new rule for his players: they are “encouraged” to become investors in the Ragin’ Cajun Athletic Foundation. They can do so by contributing at least $50.
The RCAF is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that supports UL’s teams and provides funds for scholarships and facility upgrades. As a not-for-profit, the RCAF is exempt from paying federal income taxes.
The RCAF actively welcomes financial support from fans of UL athletics. On its website, the RCAF features a detailed chart for varying benefits associated with different levels of membership. A $50 membership serves as a tax-deductible donation and offers access to “exclusive Ragin’ Cajun gifts.” A $100 membership includes those benefits while also providing a discount for Ragin’ Cajun apparel. A $300 membership provides an RCAF license plate. Go up to $750 and you’ll receive recognition at a football game. How about if you’re feeling generous and you become a $10,000 member? You’d obtain “recognition on video board during all home sporting events.” Go all the way to $100,000 and you’ll get an opportunity for a championship ring. RCAF members/contributors/donators are called “investors,” a moniker likely employed to imply that the donator is “invested” in RCAF.
It’s not unusual or unlawful for a school to use an athletic foundation to raise money for sports. In fact, universities routinely try to instill in their students a culture of giving back, be it for sports or other university purposes. This acculturation process is a common strategy of schools’ foundation offices. If students feel that “giving” is essential to their association with their university, they’ll become more likely to adopt that view as they go off into the workplace and, in some cases, earn considerable incomes and acquire wealth.
The atypical feature of RCAF is that college athletes—who are under a different set of pressures and conditions than are their classmates—are being “encouraged” to pay.
To be clear, the UL football players aren’t obligated to donate. They can say no.
Sometimes, though, the technical right to say no is not a meaningful one. This is where the NCAA and the Sun Belt Conference might examine whether UL football players’ “choice” is, in reality, a fiction.
UL football players, some of whom are teenagers, might feel compelled to donate. This would make the payment more like a fee than a donation. Remember, these are full-time college students. Usually college students don’t have disposable income to “invest” in various ventures.
Along those lines, some UL football players could wonder what happens if they say “no.” Could they fall out of favor with Coach Napier? Might they lose playing time? Could their athletic scholarship be taken away? Would they be treated differently than their teammates who said “yes”? Would the no-players be perceived as difficult or even litigious? Think of all the thoughts that might run through their minds: the more they feel that they have to give, the less of a meaningful choice it becomes.
The NCAA knows that any kind of controversial arrangement involving college athletes is susceptible to being mentioned in future court proceedings. Like the O’Bannon and Alston lawsuits, and like the Northwestern football players’ attempt to be declared employees under the National Labor Relations Act, there will almost certainly be future lawsuits that highlight the peculiarities of amateurism. The UL arrangement could be cited as an example of where college athletes can’t be paid by their schools or their athletic foundations, but they can be expected to pay those foundations.
Napier is also in an interesting spot in terms of asking his players to give. According to a July 25 article by Tim Buckley in the Lafayette Daily Advertiser, Napier’s contract includes a “$500,000 contingent premium benefit funded by the Ragin’ Cajun Athletic Foundation.” The $500,000 is the largest portion of his compensation, which also includes a base salary of $275,000, a $6,000 annual car allowance and a $960 cell phone allowance. This arrangement suggests that Napier is asking his players to fund an entity that pays him most of his compensation. Napier says the $50 donation would be a way for the players to show “gratitude.” The players might wonder why their coach, who annually earns in the ballpark of $800,000 a year, doesn’t instead donate a dollar amount in their names.
RCAF executive director Lee De Leon is quoted in Foote’s story as saying that Napier’s plan will remind the players of “the effort and time and investment that the people that support athletes at UL have put in into this program.” The irony of the statement, of course, is that college athletes have gone to court to remind their schools, coaches and foundation officials of the “effort and time and investment” that they have put into their programs.
Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.