Apparel deal is big for UCLA, but not for athletes

The center photograph celebrating UCLA's record $280-million shoe and apparel deal with Under Armour was poignantly missing someone. Absent was the athlete upon whose back this deal was cut.

Bill Plaschke
May 24, 2016
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UCLA linebacker Deon Hollins (58) is congratulated by teammates after sacking Virginia quarterback Matt Johns in the first half on Sept. 5, 2015.

The center photograph celebrating UCLA’s record $280-million shoe and apparel deal with Under Armour  on Tuesday was poignantly missing someone.

On one side was smiling Bruins Athletic Director Dan Guerrero. On the other was smiling Under Armour executive Kevin Plank. Between them was a crisp new white Under Armour UCLA basketball jersey.

Missing was the athlete who will wear that jersey.

Absent was the athlete upon whose back this deal was cut.

Forgotten, again, was the athlete whose ability to promote Under Armour products earned the big contract, yet whose amateur status under warped NCAA rules prevents him or her from reaping significant financial rewards.

On the richest day in UCLA sports history, the final score was: Bruins athletics $280 million, Bruins athletes $0. Not that this is news, but man, something is really wrong here.

The fact that the college athletes can’t share any part of that money is unreal.— Ed O'Bannon, former Bruins basketball star.

The movement to pay college athletes has been brewing for years, the protests louder with each increase in ticket prices, each lucrative coaching salary, each TV rights windfall. But this latest news cuts deepest into the heart of an NCAA scam that is now exploiting the athletes by jersey number and shoe size.

It’s bad enough that college basketball players receive nothing from the $8.8-billion NCAA tournament television contract, or that college football players must voluntarily toil for $3-million coaches like UCLA's Jim Mora.

What is particularly obscene is that these athletes can’t even benefit from the shirts on their backs, especially when those shirts are worth $280 million over 15 years.

It’s not only a UCLA problem. Other large schools have similarly lucrative arrangements. Nike has a $252-million deal with Ohio State, and a $250-million contract with Texas. But now that UCLA has set a record, the unfairness seems crystallized, overwhelming, and the Bruins' most celebrated current athlete was quick to react.

Josh Rosen, UCLA’s Heisman-hopeful quarterback, posted the news on his Instagram account with the sarcastic comment: “We’re still amateurs, though…Gotta love non-profits.’’

It is stars such as Rosen who will do the best job of selling Under Armour for UCLA, yet  he is guaranteed no piece of the new contract beyond use of the the shoes and shirts he will be peddling. Like many Bruins athletes, he is benefiting from a full scholarship that can be worth more than $240,000 over four years for out-of-state students. But as Under Armour just proved, he is performing a job that is worth much, much more.

“The fact that the college athletes can’t share any part of that money is unreal,’’ said Ed O'Bannon, a former Bruins basketball star.

O’Bannon, who was a leader on UCLA’s last national championship team in 1995, was the plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit against the NCAA that challenged the unpaid use of a college athlete’s image for commercial purposes. In a phone interview from Las Vegas, where he works for a car dealership, O’Bannon emphasized that his problem wasn’t with UCLA, but with the system it operates under.

“I hate that this is about UCLA. I absolutely love my school. They’re just going along with the rules,’’  O’Bannon said. “But the fact that this keeps happening is crazy, just crazy.’’

Crazy is watching participants in the College Football Playoff national  championship game file into a glittering Super Bowl-type media day, for an event that will cost Super Bowl prices, and hear them wonder why they’ll be smashing heads for nothing.

Crazy is watching college basketball players competing for million-dollar coaches in the first round of the billion-dollar NCAA tournament, then seeing their parents interviewed as they sit in nosebleed sections eating homemade food sneaked past the ushers because Mom and Dad can’t afford concessions.

Crazy is believing that scholarship athletes are the same as scholarship musicians or biology students, because clearly there’s a difference. The trombone player and budding scientist can make money bringing value to themselves and their school; the athlete cannot. The musician can get paid for a weekend gig, the biologist can get paid for research. But scholarship athletes cannot get paid to moonlight with their skills, and their earnings at any part-time job are capped. Yes, the NCAA recently approved stipends to cover the full cost of attendance – laundry, student fees, late-night snacks — but that is money already available to regular students with a part-time job.

“There are men and women putting in all this work, providing a certain amount of entertainment, making all this money for the school, and some of them are not even allowed to get a job in their major?’’ O’Bannon said. “I don’t want to sound too dramatic here, but as a human being you should at least able to go to work, and they can’t even do that.’’

But student-athletes such as Rosen can protest, right? Not really. A couple of years ago, Northwestern football players attempted to unionize, but their efforts were stymied last summer by the National Labor Relations Board.

Even Rosen probably won’t say anything more about it. That is, if UCLA even lets him talk, period. Last year, while being paid zero dollars to star for a Bruins football team that has reaped millions for the athletic department, Rosen was allowed to publicly speak only once a week. If he talks more this season, chances are he won’t be talking about this.

“If there’s any sign of anybody getting anything done, then they’ll be immediately shut down,’’ O’Bannon said. “The threat of scholarships taken away, being benched in a game… history tells me that any time you open your mouth and fight for what you think is right, and it goes against city hall, you will face the consequences.’’

The events in Westwood on Tuesday simply mirror what has happened across the nation since the beginning of the college sports boon:

An athletic department got rich on the backs of its athletes, who did not. Call UCLA’s newest cheer the $280-million Clap, and feel free to boo.