Cameron Rodriguez won $20,000 last week for hitting a half-court shot at halftime of an Oklahoma City Thunder basketball game. But because Rodriguez, a 23-year-old senior at Southwestern College in Kansas, also plays college basketball, there’s a chance he might not get to keep the money.
Rodriguez receives a $4,300 athletic scholarship to play ball at Southwestern, a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, a smaller version of the NCAA that is unaffiliated with its more well-known counterpart. He told Bloomberg News that he pays more than $33,000 a year in tuition, fees, and room and board, and he was planning to use the $20,000 to help pay those bills.
But moments after his euphoric celebration — he knocked over the Thunder mascot — he realized that his status as a college basketball player might prevent him from keeping it. NAIA rules, like NCAA rules, prevent college athletes from using their sports ability or their name to make money if they want to retain their eligibility.
In Rodriguez’s case, that’s ridiculous: no offense to the guy who hasn’t logged a single minute of playing time for Southwestern yet this season, but I doubt his fame or name had anything to do with winning the money. And the idea that his ability helped him hit a shot that would involve quite a bit of luck even for top-tier college and pro basketball players is equally nuts (six non-college basketball players have hit the same shot at Thunder games since the promotion started). It’s made only more ridiculous by the fact that Rodriguez isn’t exactly profiting. He just wants to pay for his education.
Luckily for him, the NAIA may end up letting him keep it. Rodriguez and Southwestern requested that the NAIA make a rules exception that allows Rodriguez to keep the cash. An NAIA official told Bloomberg that it would take about a week for the organization’s eligibility unit to make a ruling. If they have any good sense, something their counterparts at the NCAA often seem to lack, they’ll let him keep the money and pay his bills.
But even if Rodriguez does get to keep the money, the mere fact that he has to ask someone’s permission is indicative of larger problems that are being litigated at the NCAA level right now. Because of rules that prevent college athletes from using even their own names to make money, they aren’t allowed to pursue their own business interests while in college. That’s a restriction that isn’t placed on any other college student.
That’s one of the many aspects of the class action lawsuit filed by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon and other former athletes against the NCAA. One of the current players involved in that suit, Clemson football player Darius Robinson, joined it simply because the NCAA kept him from starting his own independent business unless he wanted to sacrifice his eligibility to do so. It happens to other athletes too, like Jonathan Benjamin, the walk-on basketball player at the University of Richmond who started his own clothing line only to see his plans squelched by NCAA rules. Benjamin was a marketing major with an interest in fashion design, so preventing him from pursuing something directly related to his education could easily be construed as hypocritical coming from the organization that likes to tell the world about its athletes who “go pro in something other than sports.”
But that’s what happens when upholding amateurism and believing in the ultimate sanctity of it are the primary causes of the organizations that oversee college sports. Let’s hope the NAIA has more sense than the NCAA. And let’s hope one day, they’ll both wake up and realize how ridiculous it is that a kid has to ask permission to pay for his education — or anything else — with money that their fellow college students already have the right to make.