Guerry Clegg

Should college athletes be able to make money off their own talent?

Running back Todd Gurley
(Photo by Perry McIntyre Jr.)
Running back Todd Gurley (Photo by Perry McIntyre Jr.) Special to the Telegraph

Four and a half years ago, as he was rolling along to a possible Heisman Trophy season, Todd Gurley sat in the passenger seat of a car, autographed a bunch of Georgia Bulldog memorabilia, then collected $400 in cash that had been placed on the dashboard, and scooted off to his UGA apartment.

The whole transaction between strangers took about 15 minutes. It cost Gurley a four-game suspension, including a loss to Florida that almost certainly could have been completely different with Gurley and Nick Chubb rotating at tailback.

Six months later, then Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed the “Todd Gurley bill” into law. That made it a crime for anyone to knowingly entice a collegiate student athlete to violate NCAA rules or jeopardize their eligibility. Even legislators who opposed the bill when it was introduced did so more out of the principle of the role of government, not so much the spirit of the bill.

U.S. Representative Mark Walker, a Republican from North Carolina, has a different idea. He wants to change the NCAA’s archaic rules that define amateurism. Last week, Walker and Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) introduced The Student-Athlete Equity Act that would penalize the NCAA if they restrict athletes from earning money on their own time. It would jeopardize the NCAA’s tax-exempt status, a substantial penalty given that college sports rakes in roughly $1 billion in revenue.

“It’s a travesty and an injustice that the one segment of our society that can’t access the free market like every other person in America is the student athlete,” Walker said. “If a kid is at a school on a music scholarship, you can go get gigs. You can play in an orchestra, whatever you want to do without it having any kind of impact. And you’re doing it based on your talent, image and likeness.”

The NCAA claims that it must maintain such rigid definition of amateurism or else it would allow boosters free reign to spend money on recruits and players.

Well, OK, sure, that could happen. In fact, it probably will happen … because it’s already happening. Even the programs that try their best to run clean programs cannot control every rouge booster. But allowing student-athletes to earn money on their own names on their own time just will ensure accountability.

Besides, for the NCAA to say they want to maintain a level playing field among all the schools competing at the Football Bowl Series (FBS) level is a farce. Compare the facilities and payrolls of Alabama and Vanderbilt and tell me the playing field is level.

The early betting lines for the 2019 season are out. According to Vegasinsider.com, only 11 teams out of 130 are even given 25-1 odds of winning the national championship. Only five teams — Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and Oklahoma — have 10-1 odds or better.

Gurley is now financially set for life. He received an $8 million signing bonus as a rookie and made $3 million in salary over his first three seasons. Now he’s in the second year of a $57.5 million contract, of which $45 million is guaranteed.

But Gurley was fortunate. In his first game back from suspension, he suffered a torn ACL in his knee against Auburn. It was a clean tear and he missed only three games his rookie season with the St. Louis Rams.

His Georgia teammate Keith Marshall wasn’t so fortunate. Marshall suffered a string of setbacks — including a devastating knee injury against Tennessee — and is out of football. He didn’t leave Georgia empty-handed. He does have a degree from UGA’s prestigious Terry College of Business. That’s quite an accomplishment. But chances are Marshall won’t earn as much money in his lifetime as Gurley has already made.

Now Georgia has two more running backs who could make millions one day soon — D’Andre Swift and Zamir White. For now, though, they cannot make a dollar off of their own names and time. Never mind the complex issue of paying college athletes. They can’t even so much as get ten bucks for signing their own names on a football helmet. White has already suffered two torn ACL’s, one on each knee. Swift’s career could end on one play.

They should be allowed to sign as many helmets and jerseys and posters as they want and make as much money as the market will bear.

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