I’ve recently been perusing my copy of Sidney Moncrief’s autobiography “Moncrief: My Journey to the NBA.” On the surface, it’s seems pretty standard fare: Chapter One is entitled “Childhood” about Moncrief’s upbringing in southwest and east Little Rock. Then, chapters named “Youth” and “High School” interspersed with pictures of an adult Moncrief mingling with the folks back home. One caption reads “Moncrief and his fellow Razorbacks became role models for many Arkansas youth.”
Another picture shows Moncrief sharing a tender moment with his Little Rock Hall coach Oliver Elders during a post-retirement ceremony at the high school. Clearly, Moncrief is a good guy who appreciates where he came from and the gifts that he has. Andrew Bynum, this is not.
And yet, in the fourth chapter, entitled “College,” things get a little hazy.
It starts on page 51, at the tail end of a paean to Moncrief’s Arkansas coach Eddie Sutton: “Coach Sutton taught us to excel in all walks of life,” Moncrief writes. “He insisted on sportsmanship, ethical behavior, and integrity.”
Except, possibly, when he didn’t.
After leaving Arkansas, Sutton ended up at Kentucky and there was caught up in a messy recruiting scandal that involved $1000 cash mailed to a high profile Kentucky recruit. Sutton and his assistants ultimately resigned and the program was put on probation.
Moncrief writes that this episode saddened him but that Sutton “never hinted at any impropriety with me.” Then he decides to pull the ring on this grenade:
“I can say that during my time in Arkansas I wasn’t offered anything extra. I can’t say that occasionally an alumnus or overzealous fan didn’t walk up to me after a game and put a hundred-dollar bill in my hand when he shook it.”
That’s about $360 in today’s money, folks. The next line insinuates he accepted the money:
“But I sure didn’t get anything extra from the coaching staff.” Moncrief adds he wished he had after getting a $55 speeding ticket. “I told Coach Sutton about it, thinking he’d probably help me out. But he told me there was nothing he could do, his hands were tied. So I took five dollars a month out of my laundry money to pay it off.”
At first, the thought of Moncrief accepting this kind of lagniappe – and totally admitting to it in his autobiography – surprised me. But as I continued to read, I realized his apparent actions jived with his philosophy on what student-athletes deserved and I appreciate his honesty:
“I do think the rules concerning compensation of college athletes are too strict. We were expected to survive for four years off a scholarship that paid tuition, books, room and board and eighteen dollars a month laundry money. We couldn’t keep up our practice schedule and studies and work any kind of job, except in the summer. My mom worked as hard as she could, but she couldn’t afford to send me money, even though she sometimes did. When rules are too strict, people are encouraged to break them…”
“College athletics is a big business; the athlete, however, is not compensated for it other than by a scholarship.”
Moncrief’s book was published in 1990. Since then, his basic argument has picked up plenty of support by thousands other former college athletes. Moreover, the argument for more compensation has evolved to consider intellectual property rights. The business of college athletics used to primarily entail the actual sporting event – tickets, concessions, live radio and TV broadcasts that would only air once. But, as interest has exponentially increased in recent decades, so have subsidiary money making opportunities that extend past the time of the event itself.
The NCAA has the authority (possibly self-bestowed) to license the image of any of its student-athletes in video games, commercials, promotional materials, etc. for as long as it wants. Think of how many times, ad nauseum, you see Christian Laettner’s 1992 turnaround jumper buzzer beater against Kentucky during March Madness commercials. Laettner doesn’t get a dime for that.
This lack of royalties for the image (or likeness) of a former player being used to make money is why another early 1990s player, Ed O’Bannon, initiated a lawsuit in 2009 that could imperil the entire business model of college athletics by compensating current and former student athletes for the use of their images.
O’Bannon and his fellow plaintiffs, who include Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson, have a strong argument. At root is the issue of whether NCAA has true legal authority to not pay players and if “student-athlete” is even a valid term.
The main reason former NCAA head Walter Byers, in his own words, “crafted the term student-athlete” and embedded it into all NCAA rules and interpretations was because it was an excellent defense against being held liable for workers compensation benefits that those injured in athletic competition could seek.
At the University of Arkansas, Moncrief’s play provided a crucial economic engine for building an athletic program that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and serves as a significant catalyst for regional business. If he accepted a few hundred dollars under the table, was he corrupt?
Or was the system which denied him fair compensation in the first place?