“The one thing that would’ve changed our bargaining position? Cash.”

By the way, if you read the ESPN piece I linked to in the last post, you saw that sound bite from former Oklahoma State offensive lineman Russell Okung, who’s been an NFL player for a decade now.

“Why does a free-market system work for everyone but the student athlete?” Okung asked. “It’s about basic civil liberties and repressive measures that still exist today.”

Good question.  Okung fleshes that out in this well-written piece for The Players’ Tribune.

If you wonder why there’s grumbling now, when there wasn’t so much before…

The summer going into my senior year at Oklahoma State in 2009, I had a hundred dollars in my bank account and many bills to pay.

My mother had just lost her job and required my financial support. I was lucky enough to know that I would likely be picked in the first round of the NFL draft that spring and would eventually be financially secure. But at that point in time — like so many college athletes around the country — I was broke.

Being broke stung, particularly because I knew that my teammates and I had made others rich. During my days at OSU, I saw fans regularly pay thousands of dollars to fly out to Stillwater to attend games, while many of my teammates didn’t have enough money to fly home to see our families during school breaks. I watched our university lavish elite donors with high-end dinners, while some of my teammates were skipping meals due to lack of funds.

All of this happened while we were wearing commercial insignia on our helmets, shoes and jerseys so that big-time apparel companies could write multimillion-dollar checks to our schools; while we watched universities sell jerseys with our names on the backs — and memorabilia with our images on it — every day; while we saw our likenesses displayed on NCAA video game posters. Our team was worth millions to the school and yet we often had no more than a hundred or so dollars in our bank accounts.

And if you’re wondering why the court cases and the legislation now…

This is one of the main messages I’m bringing to the floor of the California legislature this afternoon, July 9, when I testify in support of the Fair Pay to Play Act. Things ended up working out for me, but there are countless other athletes who have really struggled because of the NCAA’s arcane bylaws.  College athletes are in school for a very short period of time, which makes it hard for us to organize — all colleges need to do to prevail is wait us out. We cannot win without support from the outside.  [Emphasis added.]

That’s why the NCAA plays the long game as it does.  It’s worked well, too.



Filed under Political Wankery, The NCAA

24 responses to ““The one thing that would’ve changed our bargaining position? Cash.”

  1. A great article … As an athlete, Mr. Okung lays out the moral argument and the rational argument very well for the Olympic model. I can’t wait for the amateurism romantics or the “these guys don’t realize how good they have it” crowd to try to rebut his arguments. I don’t agree with everything he says (for instance, the name on the back of jerseys didn’t start, at least at Georgia, until recently. Game replica jerseys either sold a blank #1 or whatever number was in vogue at the time), but none of my differences mean anything about the overall opinion.

    When you have a Democrat from California and a Republican from North Carolina proposing similar reform, you know there’s a political appetite to get this done.

    When Okung hangs up his cleats, he has a bright future ahead of him. Maybe guys like Ben Watson and him can make some of these reforms happen.


  2. Its hard to listen to a millionaire complain about other millionaires. Not to mention most of the millionaires he’s complaining about paid their dues went through school and THEN started to earn a living.


    • Its hard to listen to a millionaire complain about other millionaires.

      He wasn’t a millionaire in school.


    • gastr1

      Those other millionaires could easily have started their careers or earned more money through other jobs while still in school, though. They weren’t required by their college to maintain an amateurism standard.


    • Got Cowdog

      I sold my spare tire to get gas and a six pack for the ride home from Athens once, so I could see the not yet Mrs. Cowdog. Being broke is part of being a student.
      The thing is, I was free to sell my spare tire, I was free to buck bales on the weekends for extra money, I had zero commitments and zero responsibility to anyone other than myself. This is not the case for a student athlete. Their situation is unfair at best, indentured servitude at worst.


  3. Macallanlover

    “political appetites” are rarely about the overall good, nor do they often include adequate consideration for long term impact. Cherry picking situations where politicians agree with your position on a personal hot button issue, while ignoring the bigger picture, is why we end up with the fools we have elected to office the last several decades. “Just Say No” can be applied to more than just the one issue it is best known for, JFK’s Profiles in Courage was about leaders who did not always bend over to the mob mentality driven by superficial thinking. Rewarding every one with their hand out may provide a great feel good moment temporarily, but is not sustainable over the long haul given the numbers on a supply/demand basis.

    There is nothing “romantic” at all about looking beyond the simplistic/immediate, feel good solution and dealing with the reality on a macro basis. Too many needy. not enough benefits; Golden Goose is getting weaker; perhaps terminal. We will never agree on this, I don’t usually get involved with this specific subject any longer here, but I see so many parallels with other applications of this same thinking had to say this before I leave for the day. Do feel your side will prevail, but predict it will have a bad outcome. The “amateurism” issue in collegiate athletics is a small problem compared to the overall societal impact of this type thinking. And I understand it could be a reach to link them in some ways, but at its root level, your post brings them together, in a way. I hope a less radical, extreme solution is found for the issues facing college athletics these days but I am not confident in the either the judicial system, nor the leaders of the NCAA and universities to get to that point. Others will disagree, often misunderstand my position, and that is OK. Just expressing an opinion, one that is too involved to explain in one hurried post. I think we all want something good for the “patient”, just feel differently about how to get there.


    • Mac, with regard to your last sentiment, I agree that there doesn’t have to be a radical change to make things fairer. The problem right now is that the NCAA foolishly doesn’t. How do you make the kind of changes that are needed if one side stubbornly refuses to participate?


      • Macallanlover

        Generally, you don’t. Same issues we have with an inept government where every single issue is seen as black and white and the “two party control” issue demands everyone get into a bunker and lop grenades versus finding compromises. Unfortunately, extreme wings of both parties are in control and the general electorate is closer to the middle, some shade of gray. NCAA’s lack of leaders with vision has driven them to only address issues when they reach “red hot” level and is in the court system and both sides are hunkered down. Not a good way to walk into changes versus having them stuck down someone’s throat. Not a good way to run a railroad, Emmert being at the top couldn’t have been at a wore time. But it isn’t just him, there is a large staff around him and the university presidents are hardly qualified, nor is it their primary concern/role.


        • Exactly. Isn’t it more likely if the NCAA were led by a group of folks who didn’t have their collective head stuck up their ass, that we’d see something worked out that wouldn’t cause as radical a shift in the status quo?

          Unfortunately, this is why we have the litigation and the legislation that we’re seeing now. And what should worry the NCAA most, as someone else noted, is that the threats are coming from politicians of both the left and the right. Does the NCAA sound worried to you?


          • Macallanlover

            I have always maintained the NCAA lacks vision, they only deal with issues when a crisis presents it self. Most entrenched organizations/businesses ultimately lose, or fail, is because they manage through their rear view mirror and never see the obstacles until they run smack into them. Often are completely tone deaf because they don’t surround themselves with people from different backgrounds who are not afraid to challenge the old ways of thinking and addressing new options. Have seen it many times in business.

            I don’t know if they are worried or not, I suspect they are so blinded by their confidence in the status quo and feelings of invincibility. I have seen nothing of their actions that indicate they are attempting to get off the train track. The fact that legislation is coming from both sides doesn’t mean they are right, have a clue, or understand the issue, just that it could be popular and might mean votes for them. Politicians have their own train coming down the track and both parties are as inept as the NCAA, imo. They are just staring at that bright light coming closer every day as well, only the consequences are much more significant.


  4. stsbms

    How many of the “countless other athletes who really struggled” would have benefited from the Fair Pay to Play act? Yes, Mr. Okung and the two or four other notable players would benefit because their jerseys would sell, but the other 75-80 players are just faces. A video game could use just about any blank face to fill out a roster after the stars are created. Think about the jerseys sold at Tate. There will be 11, 7, and who else? Outside of the 1% of crazed fanatics, who else on the team garners enough attention that his likeness is required? The Act solves Mr. Okung’s $100 problem, but does it solve it for everyone?


    • The capitalist in me says California’s Act isn’t about solving a problem for everyone. It’s about allowing student-athletes to play by the same rules as you and I do. It’s up to each of us to maximize our value in the marketplace; the NCAA prevents student-athletes from doing that.

      As far as who else benefits goes,

      It’s not just athletes in the traditional “money” sports who would benefit. Skinner points to UCLA superstar gymnast Katelyn Ohashi, whose perfect floor exercise has been viewed by almost 44 million viewers on YouTube. Why, Skinner asks, shouldn’t she be allowed to monetize her athletic success in the way that other YouTube personalities, with far fewer views, have found ways to do?

      Liked by 1 person

      • MGW

        I mean, any local business wants to associate themselves with the “home team”. So, if you can’t afford the $50k fee for Todd Gurley, wouldn’t it be nice to drop $5k to get some volleyball players on camera to say, “Shop at Bill’s Auto-Mart, Go Dawgs!” Plenty of players in plenty of sports would benefit.


  5. noseanmorono

    So how does Title IX compound the problem? Paying student athletes, but would there be a price structure based on revenues? Consider the US Women’s Soccer Team and their argument for equal compensation. While successful, the competition they face on the world stage doesn’t equate to what the men’s team faces, and in a competitive athletic market the men have more lucrative avenues than do women, which I believe is the rationalization for higher pay in keeping the more competitive US men’s soccer players involved in the program instead of opting to avoid injury for national teams and remain in higher paying clubs. Despite this, the argument is catching support from supporters and lawmakers, too, which completely overlooks the actual market for pro sports on the two sides altogether.

    If NCAA players are getting paid, what’s the argument against the football player making more than the baseball player, or the even more difficult to navigate conversation of why male athletes are getting more compensation than female NCAA athletes? Or do they all get an equal share?

    I’m not against player compensation. Just wondering your two cents on how this would play out with Title IX, both legally and in the public perception of gender equity in sports.


    • One more time: Title IX has nothing to do with third-party payments to student-athletes. Zippo. Nada.


      • JCDawg83

        This is true; but how long after athletes are paid for NIL until the cries of “UNFAIR!!!” start because athletes in all sports, especially women’s sports, aren’t getting the same amount of money as the football and basketball stars?


        • Welcome to real life, sport. And remind me why I should care about that.


        • Macallanlover

          Currently in this week’s headlines as we speak. They don’t want “fair”, nor do they care the field is level but they don’t command the same economic gain for the one paying. Simply a case of “gimme, gimme”. Greed is insatiable, attaching a cause to it just means it will get support, deserved or not. Networks will give in, most are run by flakes. People don’t want fair, just want what someone else has. Not just based on TV ratings either, corporations and government jobs have not been based on gender discrimination in my business lifetime. Can’t say what happens in small businesses that aren’t able to be tracked, but you have to be foolish to think salaries, promotions, and opportunities are not closely monitored in large organizations. I cannot say I even saw an attempt to do so since the 70s. If anything I saw unequal it was reverse discrimination.


  6. Jeff Sanchez

    I call bullshit on any student athlete having to “skip a meal” due to lack of funds.


    • At one time, meals were only provided in season if I remember correctly. Now you could make the case, did he take the amount allocated from the scholarship for meals and spend the cash on other things rather than buy a meal plan?


      • Russ

        You mean, like making sure his mom had electricity that month?

        Let the athletes earn money the same way other students do. If they can monetize their notoriety, even better. Blocking all avenues that other students on scholarships have available to them is just wrong. But it will change soon.


        • I’m one who believes in the Olympic model.


        • JCDawg83

          I don’t see it as a college student’s responsibility to make sure his parent pays their bills.

          The issue of letting athletes earn money is a sticky one. I can see why the NCAA doesn’t allow them to work outside of school. Wealthy fans would hire top talent kids to do nothing but collect a paycheck if they went to the fan’s team. That is generally not a major consideration for students on academic or music scholarships. Since the NCAA prohibits players from having any sort of job, I think that makes the idea of a monthly stipend that is the same for every program reasonable. $300 or so a month would go a long ways toward making an athlete’s life better.

          I can’t say for sure but I don’t think full ride football scholarships only paid for meals during the season in 2009.


  7. chopdawg

    Senator, have you seen Ed Kilgore’s take?


    Well-written piece of advocacy journalism. Two questions: wouldn’t the stipend (that student-athletes receive now) have helped Okung’s situation? And, I wonder if Ed Kilgore and everyone else is OK with athletes flocking to the place where rich local boosters pay the most money ro recruit them for used- car commercials etc


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