By Teresa C. Hopkins
In 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit Court upheld a lower court’s opinion that NCAA rules to limit what athletes can be paid violate antitrust laws. It is this ruling, along with parameters he has set in place, that has Greenville resident Rob Morgan believing his recently relaunched UBooster Inc. website is NCAA compliant and fills a need for athletes and their fans.
Morgan said the site is designed to provide a way for people to donate funds to high school athletes. The funds would be held in a trust, called UFund, until the athlete graduates from college or sustains a career-ending injury. Morgan said the intent is to help student athletes after they run out of eligibility.
“Our goal had been to work with the NCAA to help schools offset the rising costs of compensating collegiate athletes using a new and innovative technique,” Morgan said. “Schools are increasingly challenged with how to pay for these costs, so they either raise ticket prices for sporting events or raise student fees on campus. Neither option is terribly creative or popular, so we are optimistic that the NCAA might consider more modern options.”
Morgan launched UBooster in January 2015 but was met with pushback from the NCAA, the governing body of college athletics, as well as some colleges and universities. The original model was designed to raise funds that would be donated to the athletic departments or booster clubs of the college or university selected by the high school athletes. However, the NCAA ruled that funds raised should not be accepted by schools.
“Given that decision we opted not to charge any of the fans who had pledged funds via the first version of our site,” Morgan said. “NCAA argued that we might adversely impact recruiting decisions and therefore our first model would be deemed noncompliant.”
This time, UBooster is designed with the money raised going directly to the individual athlete instead of the school. And athletes become untouchable once they sign on to a college or university.
The funds raised so far are small, Morgan said prior to the Feb. 3 college football signing day, with scattered donations ranging from $5 to $25 for a variety of players. The high school football players on the site were removed once they signed with a college. Donations are capped at $500 per player from each fan and $20,000 total per player. He said he intends to add other sports and athletes throughout the year.
Morgan said the money can be used for things such as moving expenses, rent deposit or helping to pay for graduate school.
Michael Allen, a lead design architect with McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture in Greenville, played football at Clemson University from 1995 to 1998. He sees benefits in a crowdfunding site like UBooster for college student-athletes. He and Morgan were both part of the Liberty Fellowship, a statewide leadership incubator, Allen in 2014 and Morgan in 2016.
“We are often at a disadvantage without having internships to get experience, which makes it harder to find jobs,” Allen said.
The NCAA didn’t respond to email questions regarding UBooster and its compliance with the association’s regulations for athletes, but Morgan said there has been no comments or pushback from the NCAA since he relaunched the site in December. Item 12.1.2 of NCAA bylaws for amateurism and athletics eligibility state that “An individual loses amateur status and thus shall not be eligible for intercollegiate competition in a particular sport if the individual … accepts a promise of pay, even if such pay is to be received following completion of intercollegiate athletics participation.”
Morgan said he and users of the website have no contact or contract with the athletes. Additionally, when new users go to the site for the first time, they are asked if they are a high school athlete planning to play college athletics. The reason is to protect the student-athlete from any sanctions. The site also includes an FAQ section that addresses concerns about eligibility.
“The last thing we want is for the NCAA to make an example out of someone by prohibiting them from playing college sports because they accepted a promise of payment from UBooster,” Morgan said. “Therefore, there are no contracts or advanced contact. We tell students to contact us after college, and we pay any funds in trust at that time.”
Morgan said demographics show that many of the visitors to the website are in their teens, 20s and 30s, “so the athletes may indeed be checking out their ‘status.’ At the same time, we can’t and won’t establish a direct relationship with them given the threat posed by the NCAA,” he said.
As for how the athletes are selected for the site, Morgan said he and his board review scouting reports and various sites to populate UBooster’s list of athletes.
When asked if an athlete could be influenced to attend a particular school based on the pledges he or she receives, Morgan said the athletes may or may not know they are listed on the site, and that there are too many other factors that influence an athlete’s decision on where to go to college, such as coaches, culture and academics. Allen agreed, saying the factors that led him to Clemson included distance from home, player relationships and campus style.
Morgan said he wants to have a website that engages fans, as well as educates student-athletes on balancing academics and athletics and “provides the entertainment aspect of engaging fans in making donations to athletes via our trust fund.” He added the benefit of crowdfunding is from the amount of small donations and not the one big one.
“No fan should be making massive donations to these athletes, since fans are charged immediately and the players may choose any particular school on signing day. The donations are a sign of support and a gesture of goodwill,” Morgan said.
For more information, go to www.ubooster.org.
Reach Teresa C. Hopkins at firstname.lastname@example.org, or @SCBizTeresa on Twitter.