Michigan players prepare for their upcoming matchup against Chicago Loyola.
University of Michigan players warm up before the NCAA Final Four game against Loyola University. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

As the NCAA Men’s Final Four kicked off in San Antonio Saturday, money poured into local hotels, restaurants, and retailers – not to mention the schools participating in the tournament, and the college athletics organization overseeing it all. But the one group not seeing any income were the players on the court.

Locally, an economic study projected that the Final Four would inject more than $185 million into the economy. About 70,000 people are expected to attend the championship game on Monday – between the University of Michigan and Villanova University, the culmination of three weeks and five rounds of televised games.

The NCAA’s television broadcast rights for the men’s basketball tournament was extended in 2016 for an additional $8.8 billion over eight years, ending in 2032. As for the athletes who compete on the hardwood, their compensation is typically limited to their tuition and cost of attendance, per NCAA rules.

Michigan’s fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson made note of the economic tensions that exist in college sports.

University of Michigan senior Duncan Robinson. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

“I’ve kind of avoided answering this question my whole career. But the truth is I’m highly opinionated on it,” the 6-foot-8 Robinson said at a press conference Friday. “I think there are certainly some contradictions in college sports. And anybody that fails to acknowledge those is just turning their cheek to it.”

The most vocal proponents of so-called pay-for-play reform in the college ranks have been professional athletes – many of whom have recounted their struggles during college to pay for things like laundry and other basic needs.

While the controversy isn’t new, the question of whether players in the multibillion-dollar enterprise that is the NCAA are entitled to compensation in addition to a college education is gaining more notice.

In December, a U.S. District Court in California is due to take up the question of whether players should be paid.

The NCAA has held firm that college athletes are amateurs and, thus, students first.

“Principles of amateurism and student-athlete well-being are critical to college sports,” the association said in a Friday statement. “We look forward to proving at trial that the rules are essential to providing educational opportunities to nearly half a million student-athletes.”

The judge who will hear the case is Claudia Wilken, who presided over a 2015 trial that resulted in a win for the plaintiff, ex-UCLA player Ed O’Bannon, in an antitrust case against the NCAA. Wilken’s ruling opened the door for universities to cover not just their athletes’ tuition but their full cost of attending school, including transportation, childcare needs, and unusual medical expenses.

The O’Bannon vs. NCAA case signaled a triumph for many college athletes, but to St. Mary’s University School of Law professor David Grenardo, the measures do not go far enough. Grenardo is one of the most vocal critics of the NCAA’s stance on paying players.

A former Rice University football player, Grenardo has been studying models that could be used to bring major college athletes into the free market.

When Grenardo published an article titled “The Continued Exploitation of the College Athlete: Confessions of a Former College Athlete Turned Law Professor,” he said it was therapeutic to write about a topic that had long vexed him even though he had sought to avoid being the ex-athlete whose academic work centered on the pay-for-play issue.

“As I continued to read more stories and experienced things myself, at some point I couldn’t stand it,” Grenardo said.

When Grenardo worked for a law firm in Houston, he said he had an intern who played basketball at Rice. During the internship, a compliance officer at Rice told Grenardo that because he was a Rice alumnus he couldn’t buy the intern a $5 sandwich at Subway. That would classify as an “impermissible gift” under NCAA rules. He said that even if other staff members at the firm were to buy the intern a sandwich it could still be construed as such.

Then Grenardo read about boosters at the University of Alabama enticing head football coach Nick Saban to stay at the program by paying off the mortgage on his million-dollar home, and the seeming contradiction, in part, drove Grenardo to pursue academic research on the topic.

Later this year, the Pepperdine University Law Review is set to publish Grenardo’s free-market model for paying salaries to NCAA athletes who play high-grossing sports.

Under his model, Grenardo proposes a salary-cap-regulated system with payment simulations for NCAA football and basketball players.

A football program, for example, could be bound by a $3 million salary cap with four-star athletes – the second-highest rating for college recruits – making about $50,000 per year depending on the school. Three-star recruits could earn about $30,000, and two-star athletes about $20,000, according to the article.

Compensation could also be prorated for players who work their way up from reserve to starting roles, Grenardo said.

Players of Chicago Loyola University are featured on the wall of the Westin Hotel in downtown San Antonio.
Players of Chicago Loyola University are featured on the wall of the Westin Hotel in downtown San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Chase Tidwell, a former baseball coach at the University of the Incarnate Word, said that although he understands the argument, paying players is a slippery slope. Especially in smaller programs – such as UIW and New Mexico State University, where Tidwell has coached – athletic programs would not be able to absorb the cost of adding players to the payroll, he said.

Tidwell, who supported the addition of cost-of-attendance stipends, said outside of a few top-tier football programs, such as the University of Texas, most college football teams bleed schools of money.

“I don’t think it’s feasible,” Tidwell said. “It would destroy half of the programs in this country. They would quit playing football. I’m 100 percent certain on that.”

Grenardo said the NCAA’s cap on athlete compensation violates antitrust law. He thinks it’s time athletes get paid according to their free-market value.

“The only single group that is limited in how much they can make are the college athletes – the people who are producing the product on the field,” he said.

Ken Rodriguez contributed to this story.

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez is the San Antonio Report's audience engagement editor.