SXSWSports Recap: Emmanuel Acho Makes the Case for Compensating College Athletes

By Rahul Naik

Often overshadowed by its music and film counterparts, SXSW Interactive hovers under the radar of the typical SXSW-goer, who RSVPs to every obscure SXSW event in the hopes that it manifests into a free JT or Kanye show. SXSports is an underrated branch of SXSW Interactive, outshined by technology and gaming.

But when names like Charles Barkley, Colin Cowherd, Stephen A. Smith, Bill Simmons and Victor Cruz all converge in Austin to discuss issues like domestic violence in sports, paying college athletes, the shift to digital media or brain damage in sports, it’s hard not to pay attention.

In one of the first sports panels of the conference, Longhorn and current Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Emmanuel Acho discussed why he thinks college athletes should be compensated for using their likenesses on NCAA-licensed apparel and in media.

Last year, a federal judge ruled that college football and college basketball players should be entitled to a share of the licensing revenue in college sports. But this amount of compensation is to be held until after student-athletes graduate or leave college and is capped at $5,000. Acho looks at this cap as “a slap in the face…out of $130 million generated by the football program [every year].”

Oliver Luck, an NCAA executive and former West Virginia University Athletic Director, lends further support to Acho’s case and says that college athletes have a constitutional right to govern the use of their likenesses.

Acho says he remembers walking into the University of Texas Co-op with his brother while attending the university and thinking to himself, “Those jerseys are there because of us…but we didn’t see a single penny… I was compensated the same as the guy on the bottom of the depth chart.”

Some argue that big-time athletes, like Acho, are compensated by universities in the form of very generous scholarships that cover tuition and living expenses. But Acho argues that a sport like football is equivalent to owning a full-time job, which limits the student in student-athlete. “If you have practice every day from two to six, it limits the majors and programs that you can study,” Acho said at the panel.

“What about college athletics is amateur?” he asks. “I put the same amount into my college career as I do my professional career.”

This is why many athletes study less rigorous course material and majors, according to the 240-pound linebacker. “There’s a saying in college football: School first; football second,” Acho says.

Acho also argues that athletes may be better off receiving just a check from the university that they attend rather than a scholarship. In a way, the NCAA is mandating what athletes spend their hard-earned money on, Acho says. Based on future goals and plans, the former Longhorn says that scholarships aren’t always in the best interest of the student-athlete. “Is it in the player’s best interest? No. Is it in the NCAA’s best interest? Yes.”

NCAA critics say that the current system of forcing college athletes to use money from their schools on schooling via scholarships will eventually lead to more and more cases like that of

Emmanuel Mudiay. The 19-year-old high school basketball star moved to China to play overseas this past year instead of spending a year at SMU, the college he had committed to play basketball at had he chosen to go the NCAA route.

Gary Gertzog, Executive Vice President for Business Affairs of Fanatics, spent a lot of the panel playing the role of devil’s advocate to Acho’s case. In response to Acho’s anecdote about seeing his jersey being sold in the university co-op, Gertzog said, “Jersey sales make up only seven percent of revenue in college licensing.”

Acho had a ready response: “That seven percent means a lot to us, to a college athlete who has nothing.”

Another one of Gertzog’s main contentions was estimating just how many players would actually benefit from being compensated for jersey sales and media usage. “Only the top 10 players in each sport would be affected,” he said.

Acho countered by explaining that a football team may not have but one or two national stars, but most have at least 10 to 15 local stars. “There is a difference between national demand and local demand…[a player from UT] can do a signing at Franklin BBQ,” he says.

In the end, Acho made a brilliant case, and he is probably the best-spoken, most well-informed athlete I’ve ever heard speak. Heck, he’s even going to prom this year. But a few questions remain unanswered. What happens to the student-athletes that don’t generate as much money as football and basketball players? Do they, who put just as much time and effort into their sports, remain unpaid?

Also, how will paying players change recruiting? As Gertzog put it, “[Paying college athletes] will create an entirely new menu for high school recruits.”