During the majority of their college football careers, players at the football powerhouses populating the final BCS standings have to eschew free stuff.
They do so because getting untoward benefits as student athletes can jeopardize their future eligibility to run, block, and tackle and, by extension, their opportunity to reap a bigger future payday in the NFL. (And forget sponsorships. College athletes lose their ability to take the field by entering into corporate pacts.)
But during bowl season, game organizers shower these same athletes with up to $500 in free merchandise that athletes then wear and use on campuses across the country, giving brand names a boost in the process. What happens at a bowl gift party that makes it any different from the other 364 days a year?
"When players come down to these bowl games, you don’t want to just lock ‘em in the hotel room," says Geoffrey Rapp, a law professor at the University of Toledo who contributes to the Sports Law blog. "Part of the fun is going some place warmer, getting to to go Disney land, and if there was a strict ban on any contributions or any value given to players, you’d have to be very vigilant on your players. But that said, iPods and PlayStation 3's and other electronics seems to be a bit inconsistent with the spirit of the NCAA rules."
The NCAA argues that disallowing post-season gifts would mean the end of any sort of end-of-year token.
According to the organization's website, "To not allow this would mean national champions could not receive a ring, Heisman winners could not receive a trophy, or seniors could not receive a keepsake honoring years of hard work. Allowing these awards with reasonable limits is well within the confines of amateurism."
The challenge is rewarding student athletes while maintaining their amateurism, NCAA director for football and baseball Damani Leech.
"We’ve tried to adapt to modern times. We try to provide benefits to student athletes but understanding that they are amateur athletes," Mr. Leech says. "That’s our daily challenge as an association in trying to marry those two things together and maintain that balance."
Leech likens the current NCAA stance on the bowl bonanza to distinctions in where students get money to pay for college. Wealthy college boosters can't use wads of cash to persuade athletes to attend their school. The NCAA prohibits students from taking money from a wide range of sources other than the university.
"You just can’t go get money from anyone and say I’m going to use this to pay for my books and use that for my room and board," Mr. Leech says. "I don’t think [the bowl situation] is significantly different."
But the financial-aid restriction is a blanket one, whereas the prohibition on free gets lifted for a glimmering moment during bowl season.
"On one level, it’s good that players are getting something for all they are contributing to the school," says Michael McCann, an associate law professor at the University of Vermont who studies sports law. "But it invites the question of why this is an exception and where should you draw the line. Should there even be a line?"
Big money and the ethics of amateurism
National corporations work with bowl organizing committees to get their merchandise into bowl goody bags, worth about $12 million a year, the Sports Business Journal estimated.
Additionally, while historical prestige and the amount teams receive for playing in a given bowl pull far more weight than swag bags, maintaining a top-flight bowl brand means making sure every part of the bowl operation is seen as gold-plated.
"I can assure you that not only are the players very knowledgeable about what they have and what they are receiving but they also are, the schools are very interested, too," says Jon Cooperstein of Davene Inc., a Memphis, Tenn., promotions company that served as an intermediary between companies and almost half of the nation's 34 bowl games. "Brand is a big deal."
This year's bowl gifts bear out Mr. Cooperstein's observation. The Emerald Bowl handed out an HP Netbook to the Eagles of Boston College and the Trojans of USC; the Pittsburgh Panthers and North Carolina Tar Heels walked away with a commemorative Richard Petty driving experience photo; and the Capital One Bowl threw a Best Buy party for LSU and Penn State, with each player walking away with up to $420 in merchandise. And at the Sugar Bowl, held in New Orleans, players from Florida and Cincinnati took home a Lane recliner.
While the NCAA attests to a prohibition of gift cards on its website, six bowls listed gift cards among their offered items. Leech says the NCAA slightly tweaked the underlying definition of a gift card, requiring only that they not be redeemable for cash.
On one level, Mr. McCann says, the idea of such end-of-year financial rewards raise the question as to why players are otherwise restricted from compensation.
"If the same concerns about amateurism and protecting players are justifying rules that limit players' access to financial resources during the season, why would they be any different here?" he asks.
On another level, it raises questions about whether athletes become implicit pitchmen for brands when they return to campus.
Although the potential impact of several hundred iPods or Netbooks in a sea of commercial activity may seem small, Cooperstein says corporations understand the value of having their items in a bowl goody bag.
"Sony is one of the names that is real big in the bowl gifts. And they aren't spending almost anything, with regard to their advertising dollars, to get the publicity they are getting," Cooperstein says.
Ogio, a maker of slick sports bags and other gear, had its products in 16 bowls, including all four BCS bowls and the national championship. While saying that student athletes don't become implicit sponsors of Ogio items, spokeswoman Kelly Mooney says the benefit the company gets from having college athletes wear their products around campus is "akin to sponsoring professional athletes," if in slightly different ways.
"Obviously it's not something we can measure, but we're aware of the intrinsic value," Ms. Mooney says.
Cooperstein says the promotions don't turn student athletes into pitchmen.
"They’re getting a legal gift for a job well done, for success as a team during a season," he says. "The team as a whole is getting the gift. It’s not one individual being rewarded more than any other, it’s a team. There is a set value, there is no advertising dollars that they gain from it, there is no advertising dollar that the school gains from it."
Not all are convinced.
"It's one thing to give players a sweatshirt, a product related to where the bowl was," Mr. Rapp says."But when you’re going to give them something that they’re going to be walking around campus using, that's something different. It looks like an endorsement of a commercial product."