Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Greedy NCAA could learn a thing or two from the music department

Ben Stocker was a star performer in high school, among the key players who led Dillard High School to what was essentially two national championships.

Big-time colleges covet such talent. Ben received scholarship offers from the University of Miami and Florida State University before he finally chose Michigan State.

In a superficial sense, Ben was wooed like a gifted athlete, like the football and basketball players recruited out of high school to play NCAA sports.

Except, unlike some star jock, Ben still owns his own name.

Ben Stocker, 18, was an honored saxophone player, a four-year performer with Fort Lauderdale’s Dillard High School Jazz Ensemble that twice won and was twice a finalist in Wynton Marsalis’ Essentially Ellington competition to find the nation’s best high school jazz band.

I can tell you, they were dazzling, so accomplished that I’d forget that the performers on stage were children. It was a given that Ben and other kids in the Dillard band would be offered scholarships to great college music programs.

Sort of like ballplayers. Except music scholars are exempt from the tangle of NCAA rules that relegate college athletes to cheap labor, just this side of peonage, in an $800-million-dollar-a-year entertainment business.

Since he was in the 10th grade, Ben has played gigs outside the auspices of the Dillard Jazz Band. Paid engagements at restaurants and clubs. Last summer, he and his friends regularly played the patio at Books & Books in Coral Gables.

Not only that, he committed what would have been the ultimate sin for an athlete. He exploited his own name, calling his combo the Ben Stocker Quartet. And he did it for money. Yet there were no threats from Michigan State, no reprisals from the Big Ten. His scholarship was not endangered. Because musicians are not subject to anything like the NCAA and its supposed mission to protect college athletes, at all costs, from “commercial exploitation.”

So Ben, who aspires to a career as a professional musician, can earn money off his name and talent. He could hire an agent to explore his commercial potential, an act by an athlete that would set off howls and sanctions from the NCAA. Consider what happens to an athlete, someone like the University of Georgia’s Todd Gurley, widely considered the best running back in the nation, who thought he could make a little money off his hard-earned fame.

Gurley, who grew up in a trailer park in rural North Carolina, was accused of accepting $3,000 over a two-year period in return for signing sports memorabilia. The NCAA does not abide such outrageous threats to its business model.

On Oct. 9, Gurley, who had been considered a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy, was suspended for four games and ordered to pay $3,000 to a charity. Not only that, Gurley was ordered to perform 40 hours of community service — the kind of sentence judges order for a first time criminal offender. Except this wasn’t a crime against the community. Gurley’s offense was trying to get a cut of the money generated by his own accomplishments.

But the NCAA bylaws don’t allow athletes the rights to their own names. They don’t even own the rights to their own likenesses, which have been exploited in the NCAA’s long-running deal with EA Sports, the video game giant. They get nothing for the football jerseys they’ve made into best sellers. Gurley’s red No. 3 Nike jersey had been listed on for $134.95 each, right up until his suspension. Players are sent onto the field in logo-festooned uniforms, walking billboards for multi-national sports equipment corporations.

To protect student athletes from the horrors of commercial exploitation, all that money must go to the folks getting rich off college sports.

Last week, there was a bit of a to-do over the million dollar annual salary going to the new president of the University of Florida. That’s less than half what the school’s football coach makes. And Coach Will Muschamp makes chump change compared to the $6.9 million Alabama’s Nick Saban will be taking home this year. Athletic directors and assistant coaches at football factories are making million-dollar plus salaries. State college football and basketball coaches are the highest paid public employees in 40 states. All of it thanks to that vast pool of cheap labor.

The college sports conglomerates and their legion of hangers-on argue that the kids are justly compensated given that the money they generates pays for their education. But in 2007, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics calculated that the big jock schools only spend somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of their athletic department budgets on scholarships. Salaries for coaches, trainers, administrators, meanwhile, suck up 35 to 40 percent of the budgets. (In the NFL, player salaries make up about 60 percent of team budgets, indicating what college players would be worth in the marketplace.)

The quality of that “free” education is questionable. Underachieving football and basketball players are often shunted into worthless classes designed to keep them eligible. A five-year investigation of rampant academic fraud at the prestigious — make that formerly prestigious — University of North Carolina found that for 18 years, UNC jocks have been enrolled in sham courses contrived to keep the sports machine churning money, unimpeded by athletes’ inability to pass actual college-level academics. It was reminiscent of a smaller scandal in 2009 at Florida State University. In both cases, the revelations at these particular schools came to light almost by happenstance, with the sense that if someone bothered to look hard at other big-time college sports programs, they would find plenty more evidence that the notion of “student athlete” has become a lopsided ethic.

Facing lawsuits and mounting public disgust, the NCAA board of directors voted last summer to allow the five richest sports cabals — the Southeastern Conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Pacific-12, the Big Ten and the Big 12 — to write their own rules. Maybe give players scholarships that actually cover the cost of their education, maybe even buy them health insurance. Whatever it takes to keep a lid on the crisis. Whatever it takes to keep big TV contracts coming. (And to hell with the schools in the “lesser” conferences.)

Of course, athletes still won’t be allowed the economic autonomy of, say, a college musician.

Ben told me that Michigan State’s music department operates a service called “Gigline,” which hooks student performers up with clubs, restaurants, weddings, receptions, parties. He said the university provides standard contracts to make sure that the students are properly paid, that they’re afforded 15 minute breaks, that the venues are safe.

The music department designed the system to make sure student musicians aren’t, well, commercially exploited. It’s a term that seems to have a different definition in college sports.