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Arizona basketball nets big bucks, players shortchanged

Arizona coach Sean Miller coaches junior guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright in the game against the Sacred Heart Pioneers at McKale Center in Tucson on Nov. 18, 2016. (Photo by Jordan Glenn for Arizona Sonora News)

The University of Arizona profited more than $9.8 million on the play of 13 scholarship basketball players last year.

The athletes earned a $36,000 scholarship and $1,500 every month for food and housing.

Their work generated $22.7 million of revenue for the university. They received 4 percent.

Critics say the pay is paltry and the ongoing under-the-table pay scandal involving Arizona basketball occurred because athletes are not paid a fair wage for their labors.

The huge gap between profit and pay resurfaced last month when the FBI revealed a massive payoff scandal in college basketball that ensnared Arizona and three other universities. Payouts for future players with shoe company money — long common knowledge in college basketball — are now seeing the light of day.

Scholars and labor experts call for a fair market value system that would end illegal payoffs from shoe companies to coaches and athletes. Experts want a model similar to the NBA, where athletes collectively bargain for a fair share of a team’s profits.

They believe this would end yet scandals like the current one that has rocked the college basketball world. Competition to snag five-star-athletes is fierce.

Arizona’s role became clear when the FBI released indictments of four coaches around the country, including Sean Miller’s longtime assistant Emanuel “Book” Richardson. The FBI says he took a $20,000 bribe to lure a five-star-athlete to Arizona as part of a much larger cash payout from Adidas.

Richardson’s role, according to the indictment, was to influence the athletes to sign with the shoe company if they made it to the NBA. The indictment alleged that Arizona offered Nassir Little $150,000 to play at Arizona. Little ended up signing with North Carolina.

Why do shoe companies do it? There are billions of dollars to be made on lucrative shoe contracts with superstars like LeBron James and Michael Jordan. Their strategy is long term: they bank on the profits coming later.

These under-the-table deals are nothing new to college basketball. While Shaquille O’Neal’s son, Shareef O’Neal, was being recruited by high-caliber basketball programs, Shaq told the LA Times that he was paid “very well” to play for LSU as a college athlete. Speaking of his son he said, “You can probably get a house, you can get two cars. I’ll set it up for you. I know some people down there.” Shareef signed with Arizona for the 2016-17 season.

These instances and others have led to calls for fair labor practices and pay that equals the value of college athletes’ labors.

Arizona Sonora News submitted a public records request to the University of Arizona athletic department and determined that each player generated around $800,000 in revenue for the university. Revenues for that 2016-17 season equaled $22,746,550. Coaches were paid $7,191,500 and roughly $670,000 went to the players to equal the value of two semesters of out-of-state tuition, and $1,500 a month for meals and housing during the school year.

Researchers and critics of the NCAA argue that athletes are unfairly compensated because of the huge gap between the profit the university earns and the compensation the athletes receive.

The value of college athletes has been derived before.

A 2012 study by a Drexel University professor evaluated the market value of an Arizona basketball player and it nearly equaled the $800,000 value that ASN determined each scholarship player generated for the university.

Ellen Staurowsky has studied college athletics for more than 20 years. In The $6 Billion Heist: Robbing College Athletes, she claims that not only are college athletes underpaid, they are taken advantage of by the current NCAA system.

“I would say the system is corrupt and their behavior is just emblematic of how dysfunctional it is,” Staurowsky said in an interview with ASN.

Her study evaluated the market value of athletes at some of the elite basketball programs in the nation. It used the revenue-sharing model that exists in the NBA, based on a collective bargaining process. Put simply, NBA players and their agents come to agreements on their salary based on how much a player is worth to their team.

The study estimated that the average elite college basketball player has a market value of $289,031. Staurowsky estimated the average Arizona basketball player, in 2012, had a market value of $782,301. This was based on the team being ranked No. 6 overall in the Associated Press poll at the time, as well as the profits the program generated during the season.

Her conclusions offered credibility to a 2014 campaign at Northwestern University by then quarterback Kain Colter to unionize his team, which started a firestorm. His actions gained widespread media attention that earned a full spread story in Sports Illustrated.

His campaign spread over several months and involved threats from the athletic director to shut down the football program. It exposed the inequalities of profit and pay in college athletics, but ultimately failed when the National Labor Relations Board rejected their efforts.

“The issue is the NCAA is violating antitrust laws,” said Colter in an interview with ASN. “In this country there are laws prohibiting employers from coming together and colluding and setting the price of wages in an industry and that is exactly what the NCAA is doing.”

Today, Colter is working full time for the College Athletes Players Association, (CAPA) which he co-founded in 2014. In the near future, Colter hopes to help athletes earn greater benefits from the NCAA.

“Let the schools pay whatever they want to pay. Depending on the school, if they want to pay a kid to come to a school, let them pay,” Colter said. “If you only want to pay them in a scholarship agreement, I am sure many players would accept that. Let it be a free market. To me, the current system is unlawful and anti-American.”

A New York Times reporter also has weighed in on the NCAA system. Joe Nocera wrote a book exposing the high dollar commercial money machine known as college athletics called Indentured: The Rebellion Against the College Sports Cartel.

Nocera writes that the NCAA is run as a “hyper-commercialized multibillion-dollar cartel that suppresses the wages of its workers in the name of saving them from commercial exploitation.”

University of Arizona basketball players work as if they are parts of a well-oiled machine. Players know that it is an unspoken rule that if you attend an elite basketball school, you are going to have to put more in more time than the 20 hours a week that the NCAA allows.

Former Arizona basketball player Jacob Hazzard said the Arizona basketball team practiced nearly twice as much as the NCAA allowed. During the 2015-16 season, Hazzard estimated the team practiced over 40 hours a week on basketball activities.

“The NCAA can only control so much.” Hazzard said. “There are always ways to get around the rules without breaking them, and the best programs do that sometimes to get the most potential out of their teams.”

According to Business Insider, in 2010 college basketball players across the country self reported that they spent an average of 39.2 hours a week on athletic activities.

The FBI indictments, the challenges by Colter and the push by others to bring pay parity into college athletics, leaves college basketball at a watershed moment. It can expose the underbelly, and to some, bring fairness to a scandal-ridden system.

Noah Saunders and Nate Airulla are reporters for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact them at noahsaunders@email.arizona.edu and nateairulla@email.arizona.edu 

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