November 6, 2017

The NCAA has more than its share of battles with the colleges it oversees through the years. These include grade tampering, recruiting irregularities, transfer regulations and a wide assortment of alumni/booster infractions. Most seem to funnel through one key element — money. Who gets it, who gives it and how much.

Make no mistake. The NCAA is a billion-dollar business as evidenced by the lucrative television deals. CBS and Turner Sports in 2016 extended their deal to broadcast the men’s basketball tourney and Final Four for a staggering $8.8 billion.

But the latest imbroglio is a barometer of the times — confronting the use of YouTube by its student-athletes. To some, it is a continuation of the NCAA’s quest to ensure amateurism and put the emphasis on ‘student’ in the phrase they originated, ‘student-athlete.’ To critics, it is a continued ploy to prevent athletes from getting paid and tantamount to the adage of “rearranging deck chairs as the Titanic is sinking.”

In a sense, the YouTube issue was inevitable in the digital age with the widespread use of texting, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The NCAA had sidestepped other digital media issues, such as social media monitoring by outside firms and restrictions on coaches for texting perspective recruits, but chose to clamp down on the YouTube issue.

Two cases have brought the issue to light: a Central Florida placekicker Donald De La Haye who quit the UCF football team rather than surrender revenue from the YouTube channel he produces; and Texas A&M cross country runner Ryan Trahan, who claimed he had been ruled ineligible for using YouTube to promote a water bottle company he started before enrolling at the College Station school. De La Haye’s scholarship was originally taken away before he opted to drop his channel that had 95,000 subscribers.

“In the end, I don’t feel like there was any compromising really happening,” he posted on his YouTube channel. “They wanted me to give up the money I made, wanted me to take down my videos which I worked so hard for and wasn’t comfortable doing. It was just very unfair, in my opinion, and now I’ve got to deal with the consequences.”

Trahan is seeking a NCAA ruling on the matter, but based upon the De La Haye case, he likely would face the same decision De La Haye faced.

"I don't understand how I'm allowed to have a job working at McDonald's or something while being a student-athlete, but I can't have a company that I'm passionate about, that I've been working on for over a year now, and keep my identity,” Trahan said in a recent YouTube post. “Like, how is that right in any way?" Trahan has since taken down his original YouTube Vlog and started a new one.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who was a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination last year, blasted the NCAA stance on social media, which seems to be the preferred way for some politicians to offer their views without having to answer follow-up questions from reporters.

“The @NCAA is out of control. They ruled Central Florida kicker ineligible over YouTube videos,” Rubio posted on his Twitter page.

Attempts to get a sense of college policies on the YouTube issue drew evasive or no response at all. The University of Illinois-Champaign does not have a specific policy regarding use of YouTube by student-athletes, according to Associate Athletic Director Kent Brown, who said the school will “continue to abide by NCAA and Big Ten policies.”

The money issue is not a new one for the NCAA, as the question of using an athlete’s likeness to earn money is an ongoing debate. An anti-trust court case, O’Bannon vs. NCAA, brought the issue into the national limelight when former UCLA basketball standout Ed O’Bannon filed suit on behalf of other athletes. The suit claimed the NCAA used digital likeness of athletes (photos, audio, etc.) without compensation. The NCAA said it would violate amateurism codes if they paid the athletes. In 2013, a district court sided with O’Bannon, but a court of appeals reversed the ruling. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Advocates of the NCAA claim there is merit in the NCAA argument regarding the O’Bannon case, but there has been a justified backlash for restraining student-athletes (emphasizing the word student) from using business skills to produce videos for YouTube. Critics of the NCAA have charged universities should be encouraging this type of use on YouTube and that it does not affect amateurism or competitive balance.

 The timing of the YouTube flap comes at a time when one of the major scandals in recent years involving bribery and basketball coaches was announced in late September. It should be noted this investigation was spearheaded by the FBI, and not the NCAA. 

Chuck Schoffner, a former Associated Press Iowa sports editor who covered college sports for 40 years and now contributes to the Des Moines Register, summed up what many are thinking when interviewed for this essay.

“When four college basketball coaches – from Power Five schools no less – are indicted on bribery charges, I would say yes, the NCAA has far more serious concerns to address than worry about a few athletes who are trying to make a little money from legitimate businesses,” Schoffner said. “College is supposed to get you ready for the real world and being a college athlete is who they are. They should not have to hide that part of the identity.” 

Randy Minkoff 
has had several successful careers, first as a news and sports writer and broadcaster, and now as partner in The Speaking Specialists in Chicago. Minkoff conducts sessions in contemporary media and social media training, issue management, and persuasive communication for individuals and groups at the highest levels around the world. Minkoff also serves on the faculty at Loyola University Chicago as an adjunct professor in the School of Communication, where he teaches editing, ethics and sports broadcast journalism.