Tackling college football fantasy leagues

Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics co-chairs William E. Kirwan and R. Gerald Turner authored an opinion piece, below, published in the Los Angeles Times on August 30, 2008.

This weekend, Terrapins, Trojans, Mustangs and more take to the gridiron, kicking off the college football season. This week also marks the start of a new era in college football, one in which fantasy leagues run by commercial entities exploit college players as their virtual game pieces.

These online fantasy leagues, which use the real names and statistics of collegiate athletes, raise a crucial question for higher education leaders: Is it amateurism in college sports that has become a fantasy?

The National Collegiate Athletic Assn.—the organization of colleges, universities and conferences that governs sports programs—has long upheld the principle of amateurism. NCAA bylaws establish that students participating in college sports “should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.” Clearly, these fantasy contests violate that tenet.

To fulfill its fundamental purpose of retaining a “clear line of demarcation between college athletics and professional sports,” the NCAA and its member universities need to combat these infringements on athletes’ rights and the principles of amateur sports.

Fantasy games allow fans to draft a personal “dream team” of players that earns points based on the real performances of chosen players. There are many such start-up games online, but CBS Sports’ is the most prominent. That raises particularly thorny questions for the NCAA and its member institutions because the network essentially funds the NCAA through a broadcast contract worth half a billion dollars a year.

Although CBS Sports’ Fantasy College Football is free, other companies charge entry fees of up to $19.95 a team and offer cash prizes of up to $25,000 for winning teams. One company goes so far as to assign salaries to top-rated college players because its game requires each team to stay under a pay cap.

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, on which we serve as co-chairmen, is opposed to the use of players’ names and statistics in these games and has urged the NCAA board of directors to explore possible remedies, either legal or contractual.

Since it was founded in 1989, the commission, which consists of university presidents and trustees and former college athletes, has advocated policies that protect college athletes from commercial exploitation. We believe that the creation of college sports fantasy leagues, if unchecked, is a step toward undermining the NCAA’s bedrock amateurism principles, which require colleges and their business partners to treat athletes like other students and not as commodities whose names, likenesses and/or images can be sold or licensed.

NCAA rules allow the names and images of athletes to be used only to promote their teams and their games. In fact, neither the NCAA nor the universities acquire any other publicity rights to athletes; they simply cannot license the use of their names or images—not to fantasy leagues, not to video game companies, not to sportswear companies.

However, CBS Sports and other fantasy league operators believe that they have found a loophole. A recent court ruling found that Major League Baseball players’ names and stats are not owned by the individual players or the leagues, but instead are in the public domain. This ruling was made by the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in a case involving Major League Baseball Advanced Media and a fantasy league operator. The court decision describes these professional players as being “handsomely” compensated and able to earn “additional large sums” through endorsement contracts.

Legal scholars disagree about whether this ruling applies to amateur athletes who are not compensated for their participation and cannot earn money from endorsements.

We believe that the NCAA, universities and college athletes should take firm positions that this ruling does not apply to amateur sports—and that all those groups should contact fantasy game operators to formally demand they stop using students’ names in these games. Unless the courts clearly decide that amateur athletes’ names can be used without consent and for purely commercial purposes, the NCAA and universities have the responsibility to stand up for their athletes and the amateurism principles that should guide college sports.