Zac Stacy is a game changer. Archibald Barnes is a game changer. So is Walker May.
I know this because Vanderbilt University tells me so. On billboards around town, on television at 15 and 30 seconds a pop, on various social media outlets, that message and those faces are inescapable.
Things are different with the Commodores — that’s what they’re selling. And make no mistake about it, the sale is the key thing. The slick, smart campaign, which also includes coach James Franklin, has been at the forefront of the effort to fill Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturdays, which was the case in each of the past two weekends when Florida and Auburn, respectively, came to town.
Unwittingly, the ads also serve as a reminder that Vanderbilt is no different than any other major college athletics program in the way it exploits its athletes.
It’s not news to anyone that everyone involved with college athletics makes money except for the athletes themselves. Those who play the games are subject to a mountain of regulations and oversight that make it impossible for them to make a buck in their free time, if they even have any.
The issue resurfaced nationally for the umpteenth time last week when Sports Illustrated published an article that alleged former LSU star Tyrann Mathieu (aka “Honey Badger”) and another player might be guilty of one or more NCAA violations because they allowed use of their image to promote one or more parties at a Baton Rouge nightclub.
At issue in that case is NCAA rule 188.8.131.52, which declares ineligible any student-athlete who “accepts any remuneration or permits the use of his or her name or picture to advertise, recommend or promote directly the sale or use of a commercial product or service of any kind.”
Yet we all see larger-than-life images of Stacy and Barnes and May looming over area interstates accompanied by the number to the Vanderbilt ticket office.
The distinction, of course, is that the players were not paid for their participation in this particular ad campaign. Add to that the fact that Vanderbilt, by legal definition, is a not-for-profit educational institution rather than a commercial product or service, and it’s clear the university absolutely did not break any NCAA rules in this case. Nor did it stoop any lower than any other school does in similar instances.
Thus, this is not an indictment of Vanderbilt, in particular. It’s just latest unsavory example of how much hypocrisy clouds college athletics in general. It’s like Lance Armstrong being added to the list of professional cyclists who used performance-enhancing drugs — disappointing but not surprising.
In practical terms college athletics, particularly football in the Southeastern Conference, is a multimillion-dollar industry. It goes well beyond ticket sales into apparel deals, broadcast rights on radio and television, fundraising and so on and so on.
Coaches get paid more than professors and — a lot of times — administrators. Sneaker companies cash in. So do those who make everything from big foam fingers to pompons to caskets and sofa cushions. Beverage makers drink in the profits through their connection to college sports teams.
Often Vanderbilt is set apart from many others because of its moderate size, its rigorous academic requirements and, in the case of football, its many failures.
Its willingness to call on players to hawk its athletics wares, so to speak, proves that it is just like all the rest. That’s probably good news to some.
There’s no way to know for sure just how many tickets have been sold, how much merchandise has been moved or how much ancillary income resulted from the goodwill created by the ads.
All that is certain is the players won’t see a dime from any of it. Sadly, it seems that never will change.