The shirt off the players' backs

Updated: April 2, 2004, 6:37 PM ET
By Darren Rovell | ESPN.com

Carmelo Anthony remembers looking up from the court during Syracuse's run to the national championship and seeing a sea of Orangemen jerseys on fans in the stands. It put a smile on his face to see that so many of them had the No. 15 -- his number -- on them.

Carmelo Anthony
With his performance in the NCAA Tournament last year, Syracuse fans wanted to wear a replica of Carmelo Anthony's jersey.
It bothered him as well.

"I always thought college players should get paid for something like that," Anthony said. "I would have been rich."

Now, of course, Anthony is rich. Fueled by his performance during the NCAA Tournament last March, Anthony was picked third in the 2003 NBA Draft. His contract with the Denver Nuggets is worth more than $3 million this season. A Nike endorsement deal pays him $3 million more.

A decade before Anthony came onto the scene, it was University of Michigan's Chris Webber who cried foul over his school's ability to collect royalties off the sales of his jerseys. Like Anthony, Webber didn't make a penny.

While the NCAA doesn't allow apparel manufacturers to put the college player's name on the back of the jersey, they do permit them to duplicate the players' numbers. All the better to entice fans to buy yet another jersey with their school's name on the front. The schools get a royalty on each jersey sold, but the athletes still don't get a piece of the pie.

"They clearly pick the numbers of the best players. There's not anyone in the world that can possibly argue that the selling of jerseys with specific numbers is not taking advantage of those athletes," said Jeremy Bloom, a University of Colorado football player and ranked freestyle skier. His lawsuit challenging the NCAA's ability to strip his college football eligibility if he accepts skiing endorsements is now before the Colorado Court of Appeals.

Bloom authored a Student-Athlete Bill of Rights, which could become a law if the California State Legislature approves it before June. In it, Bloom recommends that elite college athletes be paid royalties from the sale of their jerseys.

"Even though your name is not on the back, those No. 3's were definitely made because of me," said Tom Coverdale, whose jerseys were being sold on the Indiana campus his senior year, months after he led the Hoosiers to the championship game two years ago. Unlike most other schools, Indiana doesn't have players names on the back of jerseys that players wear on the court.

The jersey royalty issue was one of the reasons why Ramogi Huma founded the Collegiate Athletes Coalition, a group that seeks to unionize college athletes, three years ago.

In 1995, one of Huma's teammates on UCLA's football team, All-American Donnie Edwards, was suspended one game after an agent paid for his groceries. Huma said Edwards didn't have any pocket money, since he wasn't getting a cut of the jerseys that were being sold with his number.

"Does the NCAA really believe that commercialism isn't harmful to college sports because the athletes aren't benefiting?" Huma said.

Though the issue has been feverishly debated in recent years -- the NCAA's 11-year, $6 billion rights deal with CBS to broadcast the Division I Men's Basketball Championship serving as a lightning rod for the controversy -- NCAA officials have done little to address the issue.

Diana Taurasi
After Diana Taurasi led UConn to the national title last year, her jersey has been popular among Huskies fans.
But things might be changing.

In December, NCAA president Myles Brand told ESPN.com that the NCAA would look into the fairness of using specific numbers of current players on replica jerseys. NCAA spokesman Jeff Howard said that a hearing will now take place in June before the Agent & Amateurism Subcommittee. The findings will then be brought before the Academic Eligibility and Compliance Cabinet, which will pass along its own recommendations on the issue to the Management Council.

Meanwhile, the jersey issue continues to be a passion point among athletes whose jerseys have been sold in bulk.

Former Michigan State star Mateen Cleaves said he believes the NCAA will eventually have to buckle on the issue. From his sophomore to senior seasons, 1997 to 2000, thousands of Michigan State jerseys bearing Cleaves' No. 12 were sold. Sales were boosted from a Final Four appearance in 1999 and capturing the national championship in 2000.

"I don't think college athletes should be greedy, but I deserved to get compensated for all that money that was being made off me," said Cleaves, who has made more than $4 million playing for three different NBA teams over the past four years. "All this money was being made around me and I was struggling to get by because my parents didn't have any money to lend me. That shouldn't happen."

In the minority are former college basketball stars, such as Andre Miller, who don't agree that athletes should get any cut of their jersey sales.

Miller's jersey quickly became the thing to wear for University of Utah fans when the point guard led the Utes to a Final Four appearance in 1998.

"Athletes get an education -- a scholarship check," Miller said. "How they use you is the price you pay for getting in free."

The royalties that a top athlete would receive from jersey sales would hardly be a windfall.

Since Jan. 1, 3,570 Duke jerseys with the No. 21 on it have been sold in stores across the country, according to Neil Schwartz, director of marketing for SportScanINFO, a retail tracking firm. If Duke senior guard Chris Duhon, who wears the number, equally split the 8 percent licensing royalty with Duke, his royalty cut would come to a little more than $3,000, or about 85 cents a jersey. And that's just throughout the last three months.

Although the jerseys cost an average of $43 each, the royalty comes on the wholesale price of the jersey, instead of its retail value. It's hard to argue that some aren't buying new threads directly because of Duhon. There are eight different variations of his jersey on the market.

If University of Connecticut guard Ben Gordon received a 4 percent royalty from the sale of his jerseys since January, he'd have an extra $1,800 in his pocket. About 2,100 No. 4 UCONN jerseys have been sold so far this year, Schwartz said.

"They're making so much money off of us already, if they would share some of the profits from the jersey sales, it would really help," Gordon said. "It would show that the NCAA can be that much more supportive.

"Look, I plan on making some big money someday regardless. So I don't always worry about that small change kinda stuff," he said. "Having said that, when you're in college, a couple thousand dollars would certainly help. Anything would help."

Still, a couple thousand dollars could be welcome to college athletes, who are still waiting to hear from the NCAA regarding a proposal for a cost-of-living augmentation to their scholarship, which would give them an estimated $2,000 to cover rent and other expenses. Not everyone has riches waiting for them like Anthony did.

"Three thousand dollars would go a long way for these players," Huma said. "And jersey sales could increase because fans would know that their money was helping to support that specific player."

Arranging a royalty structure with high-profile college players would enable universities to sell more jerseys, said Steve Johnson of 29*34 Vintage Sportswear, which makes more than 40 college basketball retro jerseys of former players including Julius Erving (Massachusetts), Larry Bird (Indiana State) and Danny Manning (Kansas).

"If they could put the names on the back, they would definitely be a hotter item," Johnson said. Companies like Eastbay, which allow customers to personalize their college basketball jerseys, do not allow fans to personalize a jersey with the name of an active player.

It's easy to say that a player whose number is being used should get a 50 percent cut of the royalty, with the school getting the other half, but one industry insider says that the calculation isn't that easy.

"It is very difficult to measure what specific factors influence a college fan to buy a jersey," said Derek Eiler, chief operating officer of Collegiate Licensing Company, which manages the trademarks and pays royalties to almost 200 colleges and universities.

Since Oklahoma lost to LSU in the BCS championship game, approximately 1,800 Oklahoma jerseys with the No. 18 have been sold, according to Schwartz. But the school's athletic director Joe Castiglione says that White and the team should know that the royalty dollars received by the school are being reinvested into the athletic program and other parts of the university.

"The top student-athletes across the country may not be educated on how this all works, but the money goes toward things like building better facilities to upgrading the quality of team travel and equipment," said Castiglione, a pay-for-play opponent. "But that doesn't mean that we don't need to talk these things through and try to understand both sides as we move forward into a new era."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com

Darren Rovell | email

ESPN.com Sports Business reporter