College football players aren’t allowed to receive compensation above and beyond the scholarship they receive to go to school, but when the sport’s bowl season begins two Saturdays from now at the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, players from Washington State and Colorado State will receive hundreds of dollars in promotional gifts from the bowl’s sponsors.
The same thing will happen at the other three bowls that day, then at the other 31 bowl games that follow, including the BCS National Championship Game. In fact, every player who plays in a bowl game will receive up to $550 in gifts, ranging from watches to mountain bikes to recliners. And the $550 number is a bit misleading, since the bowls negotiate lower prices with sponsors and gift-givers so that they can give the players more merchandise without exceeding the limits.
This is all within NCAA rules. The organization that has rules preventing coaches from buying needy players groceries, the organization that has ruled athletes ineligible for participating in events that are obviously benign to anyone else, the organization that is prepared to fight athletes who want to profit off of their own names, images, and likenesses all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, is fine and dandy with sponsors showering players with gifts because it’s part of a mostly meaningless college football spectacle (as long as the players don’t sell the merchandise or other bowl memorabilia, because doing so warrants a suspension and the “football terrorist” label from really serious newspaper columnists).
It’s another reminder that in the NCAA, amateurism is whatever the NCAA says it is.
Of course, there’s a reason the NCAA lets all this happen: it pleases bowls and their sponsors. The most common gift at this year’s bowl games isn’t a specific item; instead, it’s what is known as a “gift suite,” which lets players enter a room, see a host of items and choose what they want. As long as it stays below the $550 total it’s kosher. The perk for the companies is that some of them use the gift suites to test items on college athletes that either haven’t hit stores yet or just did. As Sports Business Journal explains, “Oakley and Sony in the past have stocked gift suites with new or not-yet-released items, meaning players and coaches get something their friends and family don’t have and can’t yet buy at a store.”
This year, a new gift suite participant is Southern Motion, a company that makes reclining sofas and chairs. Odd choice for a college athlete maybe, but not for Southern Motion. “We do view this alliance as an avenue to do additional business through alternative channels of distribution,” Beth Loden, Southern Motion’s strategic accounts director, told SBJ. “We are interested in exploring this opportunity as it does not conflict with our normal business model, which is through traditional retail stores.”
So there you go. College athletes get gifts worth somewhere between $550 and a thousand bucks, but everyone else gets something worth far more. Bowl games get to maintain valuable sponsorship relationships. Corporate retailers like Oakley, Southern Motion, Sony, and Fossil — watches are the second most common item in gift packages — get to reach new markets through college athletes, many of them highly recognizable on their campuses and in their communities. And if you’re Oakley, or Sony, or Fossil, what better way to get a free advertising than through the endorsement that comes from slapping your product on the most famous young men on campus?