In four years at Michigan, Isaiah Livers has scored 987 points, collected 453 rebounds and assisted 110 baskets. In the process, he’s won 94 games, each one helping to earn the University hundreds of thousands of dollars from ticket sales, advertising revenue and TV deals.
None of it has gone to Livers.
“I just feel like I’m being used a lot,” Livers, who wore a shirt with the hashtag #NotNCAAProperty throughout the NCAA Tournament, said in an interview with ESPN’s Rece Davis on March 24. “I feel like a university or the NCAA or a conference can make so much money off of one name, and the guy who’s putting all the work in to get to that point gets nothing out of it.”
That much has been true for the last four years with Livers and of college athletes for decades. Even if Livers goes on to a successful NBA career and makes millions of dollars playing the sport professionally, he’ll still have been prevented from making the money he earned for four years. That’s bad enough in its own right.
This week’s news made it even worse. On Friday, Michigan announced that Livers underwent successful surgery on his right foot after a stress fracture caused him to miss the entire NCAA Tournament. Buried in the press release was Livers’s timetable: “Recovery is expected to be a minimum of six months,” the statement said.
For four years, Livers — unlike thousands of other college athletes — had a money-making light at the end of the tunnel. As an athletic forward with a 41.2% career 3-point shooting percentage, Livers was widely projected to be a second-round NBA Draft pick a month ago.
Now, few mock drafts predict Livers will be selected at all. One NBA executive said via text that Livers’s draft expectation was “all over the second round” before his injury. Now, according to the same executive, Livers is less likely to be drafted because of how long he’ll be out, though, it was added that Livers going “late second round (is) still in play.”
Before the season, Livers said that the primary feedback he got from NBA teams in the pre-draft process last summer was to stay healthy. More important than any improvements in his play, he did exactly that for four months.
Then, on the morning of Michigan’s Big Ten Tournament semifinal against Ohio State, it was announced that Livers had suffered a stress fracture, sidelining him indefinitely. If that had been the extent of Livers’s injury, it would’ve been sad enough — a senior, in his final college season, losing the event he’s worked toward for four seasons.
With surgery required, Livers will now miss pre-draft workouts and the NBA Combine. He’ll also miss the Summer League and potentially the beginning of the regular season, reducing the likelihood he’ll find a Duncan Robinson path into making millions of dollars if he goes undrafted.
The fragility of sports careers isn’t exclusive to college athletes. Every year, dozens of professional players have their careers derailed by injury. But at least they were able to make money while they were playing. Livers couldn’t.
Right now, the Supreme Court is debating the legality of college players being unpaid by their schools. In Congress, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., introduced The College Athlete Economic Freedom Act earlier this year. If passed, it would allow players to profit off their name, image and likeness — a move the NCAA could also make on its own.
Either solution would change college sports forever. A player like Livers would no longer spend four years unable to profit off the financial value that he provides to his school and to the NCAA. As a beloved athlete in a sports-crazed college town, Livers would have had no shortage of sponsorship opportunities. The same goes for his teammates, many of whom will never play in the NBA.
Junior guard Adrien Nunez, for example, played just 3.2 minutes per game this year. But with over a million TikTok followers, he would probably have a chance to make more money than any other Wolverine.
“It doesn’t even have to be about how good of a player you are compared to this other player and you’re getting paid just because you average 20 points a game,” Livers told ESPN. “Now, guys could focus on art, music, selling clothes. … We’re not just basketball players, we’re human beings too.”
None of this is to say that there isn’t value in college sports. Livers needed his four years at Michigan to develop into an NBA prospect. But even a player like Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs, who has used this season to jump from a low-lottery prospect to a consensus top-five pick, is being exploited by the NCAA.
Against UCLA on Saturday, Suggs hit a shot that the NCAA will use in advertising campaigns for generations. On CBS, 12 million people watched along. If the NCAA would allow him to, Suggs could go back to Spokane on Tuesday morning and sign an advertising deal with every business in town.
Fortunately for Suggs, though, his multi-million-dollar payday is only a few months away. Thanks to an unfortunately-timed stress fracture, Isaiah Livers isn’t so lucky.
With one rule change, it wouldn’t have to be this way.