Outside Robsham Theater, a group of students can always be found walking on a tightrope spanning two trees. I can’t explain why they do it, but they’re always laughing and having a good time. Of course, until someone falls off—goodness knows the pain they’ll feel. The rope isn’t that high off the ground, so it doesn’t seem dangerous. But it’s just elevated enough where, if you trip, you’ll probably end up in the hospital with a twisted ankle. If you have my flexibility and balance, probably worse.
That’s the kind of rope upon which Boston College Athletics currently teeters. A legal rope, that is.
By now, we know that NCAA teams, particularly those with major football and men’s basketball programs, cannot profit off the likenesses of their players more than they already do. They never see a penny of television money or ticket proceeds, as Ed O’Bannon reminds us every day on the ticker across the bottom of ESPN.
This isn’t an argument about whether college athletes should get paid—please, let’s not start that one up. Frankly, without outwardly compensating the athletes, it’s kind of hard to avoid the fact that schools will make money on likenesses on those factors. Unless we have some huge overhaul of the whole system (which could happen pending the outcome of a never-ending series of litigation against the NCAA), colleges will continue to profit from those two sources.
Even if schools seem progressive on the matter of giving more—like Virginia Tech, which, whether for moral reasons or to appear more appealing to recruits, cuts massive cost-of-attendance checks to its football players—they’re still in that bind. Many athletic departments couldn’t stay afloat financially without the income they get from the gates and media outlets. Unfortunately for proponents of student-athlete rights, it will be quite difficult to change that—after all, it’s hard to pay athletes if they literally have no place to play.
But a lot of the income schools get is extraneous and within their control. That starts with jersey sales.
It’s safe to say that there will always be some steady income from jersey sales. Alums reminiscing about the good old days and incoming sports fanatic freshmen alike want to sport the coolest gear at a football, basketball, or hockey game—I purchased a gold BC hockey jersey before I even stepped foot on campus last August.
Once again, players don’t see any money from the sales of jerseys. For some sports, that won’t be a problem. That hockey jersey I bought doesn’t have a number on it, and BC—justifiably so—has the rights to the “Boston College” plastered on the front of it.
Yet that doesn’t stop schools and the NCAA from finding ways to exploit players’ likenesses—something that, although legal, goes against everything the NCAA stands for as an amateur organization. Two years ago, ESPN college basketball reporter Jay Bilas made great headway on this issue by using the search function on ShopNCAAsports.com, the wonderfully benevolent organization’s official website. He searched for some of the top college football players and was surprised to find that, if for example you searched for Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, an Aggies’ jersey with the No. 2 appeared.
Manziel’s name didn’t adorn the top of this A&M jersey, unlike those which the Aggies use on the field, thus making it technically unauthentic. It did, however, say “Football,” a glaringly overt reference to his “Johnny Football” nickname. The same occurred when Bilas searched the name of several other premier players: no name appeared on the jersey, but his number—something that obviously denotes who the player is—did. NCAA president Mark Emmert quickly responded with an apology, before suspending the “hypocritical practice” of selling players’ jerseys.
This issue of jerseys continued in the wake of Ohio State’s decision to restrict the sales of jersey numbers to 1 and 15. The Buckeyes claim that these two numbers were chosen because this is the 2015 football season and the team ended last year as the No. 1 team in the nation. That logic is shaky at best—two of OSU’s most marketable players, Ezekiel Elliott and Braxton Miller, wear those two numbers. Nevertheless, it’s a step in the right direction, one that several other universities have followed.
In light of that decision, assistant sports editor Tom DeVoto and I took a trip to the McElroy Bookstore and on the website to check out what jerseys BC sells. We found that a select—and deliberate—few are highlighted.
On the website, No. 22 and No. 40. In the store, No. 44 and No. 2, with No. 21 for men’s basketball. Do those sound familiar? In order, that’s Doug Flutie, Luke Kuechly, Andre Williams, Tyler Murphy, and Olivier Hanlan.
That cannot possibly be a coincidence.
I brought this up with Director of Athletics Brad Bates in a meeting last week. Bates seemed surprised at the fact that BC would sell those particular numbers—he didn’t play dumb, he knew exactly which players those numbers represented—and followed up with me shortly via email.
“I thought we had phased-out specific jersey sales previously for the very reason of your observation of inconsistency,” Bates wrote. Fair enough. But then he followed it with: “Fans can also purchase customized jersey numbers but cannot purchase a jersey with a current or future student-athlete name.”
Normally, that would make sense, and it seems like BC is aware of the issue of profiting off its players’ likenesses.
If BC actually had names on the players’ jerseys, that is.
Yes, since BC’s contract with Under Armour began on July 2010, football hasn’t had names on its jerseys. The only way an Eagle on the gridiron from the last five seasons can be identified is through his number.
By selling the No. 44 in the bookstore, BC clearly implies that you can purchase the jersey of Andre Williams, one of the program’s top 10 players of all time. Even though it’s an exact replica of the jersey he wore on the field, Williams won’t see a dime from the sale of his likeness.
BC looks even worse for the website’s sale of Flutie and Kuechly jerseys. By marketing those as the jerseys of choice on the bookstore website, BC targets alumni who saw those two stars play in Alumni Stadium yet can’t physically come to campus to purchase them. Selling those particular numbers without the names is similar to Bilas finding the jerseys on the NCAA website.
Now, a lot of this is the fault of the Bookstore, which operates independently of BC Athletics. But then I took a look at Boston College Athletics’ Official Online Store, and saw that the department is selling throwback jerseys like the ones they plan to wear at Fenway Park against Notre Dame. The website doesn’t mention a player’s name, but says the “uniforms commemor[ate] the 30th anniversary of the 1985 Cotton Bowl victory, and the famous Hail Mary pass.” Only one player comes to mind when you talk about BC players from the 1980s throwing famous Hail Mary passes: the man who did it, Doug Flutie. What number is the jersey? You guessed it: 22.
The courts may not be coming to BC Athletics to stop selling the jerseys of players anytime soon, given that the school is far enough away from the national spotlight to raise any concern. That doesn’t mean that the school should get away with it, either.
So there’s really only two solutions here. BC could stop selling these jerseys—or any jerseys with numbers, aside from No. 00, really—so that they no longer profit off their players’ likenesses. Or BC could start doling out checks to Flutie, Williams, and Co.
It’s up to Bates to choose the direction he wants to go. As Director of Athletics, there’s a good chance he can pressure the Bookstore (and his own website) to stop selling the jerseys of his players. If Bates chooses the paying athletes’ route—an unlikely one considering BC’s established stance on the cost-of-attendance—he would uproot the fabric of college athletics.
But he has to pick one of them. Because option three—a class action lawsuit that could resemble O’Bannon v. NCAA—is just about the last thing BC needs.
Featured Image by Graham Beck / Heights Senior Staff