Fair pay to play? Q&A with Cal football alumnus Dasarte Yarnway

Nick LoBue/Courtesy

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The NCAA has been at the crossroads of the labor issue for some time now. Originally created to govern a loose confederation of universities that happened to include athletic programs, the organization has grown rich in the modern era.

Lucrative TV deals, new stadiums, merchandise and all other kinds of investments have entered the game, turning the once forgettable bureaucracy into one of the most valuable sports conglomerates in the world. However, with the profits have come the awkward questions of fairness and compensation. The sports are played by student-athletes who receive no financial compensation for their participation despite the fact they are the ones creating the product. Should student-athletes be paid? What is the best case of reform? Former Cal football player Dasarte Yarnway provides a fresh perspective as someone who was once at the center of the issue. 

Rory O’Toole: What was your impression of the NCAA as a system, of when you were in that machine, so to speak? 

Dasarte Yarnway: I’ll tell you this. The NCAA has done a good job of trying to (make) it possible for athletes to play. That’s all I can really say about that. But I remember going to the student center down at Haas, meeting with a guy — I forget his name. When I see him, I’ll know him. I was like, “Yo, I want to do something.” I had a business idea. The logo was, like, a silhouette of me running the football, and he was like, “You can’t do that.” And I’m like, “Why can’t I do that?” He’s like, “Because you’re using your image and likeness.” 

ROT: Yes. Can’t profit.

DY: I was like: “I want to make a company. This is a silhouette of me playing football — can I change it? Can I do something else?” He was like, “No, you just can’t start a business at all; you’re using your name.”

ROT: They make you reliant on the program.

DY: I’m using my name. I was always kind of entrepreneurial and creative, so I want to do different things. I was hustling. I want to make money; I want to build. But you can’t do that. After that, I was like, this is crazy. This is crazy. The arguments about should we be paid or things of that nature — that’s subjective. I think that we should be paid more or given, like, a stipend depending on where you live, because we were getting paid the same thing that people in Alabama were getting paid, $1,100, being in California. So I’m like, this is crazy. You go to Alabama, these dudes have big-ass houses. Are we both making the same thousand dollars, you know what I mean? I think there has to be some change, but I also know how hard it is to change a behemoth like that.

ROT: Did it jade you in a way, being through that? You’re the most valuable commodity at the school, but you’re not getting much.

DY: I didn’t feel jaded at the time because I felt blessed to be there, getting an education. I don’t want to seem ungrateful for the opportunity, but looking back now, these kids don’t even know this is bad. A lot of players are using credit and stuff to survive. There needs to be a few different things that we can do, like give them financial literacy courses for the players, maybe extending them more stipends depending on where they live in the country or a bigger amount, sharing the revenue in different ways for the school. I know (at) Cal, football is the cash cow. So how can we revenue share? There’s so many different ways to help, but we’re not. We are not, as institutions and the NCAA, have not figured out a way that can best serve all parties that are invested in contributing to the game. 

ROT: A lot of people say that (the NCAA) emphasizes eligibility over long-term education, so that … they’re preparing you to play the game but not necessarily for succeed in a career afterwards. Do you think that’s a fair criticism?

DY: A lot of people will say when you’re coming out of high school that you are a student, then an athlete, so they try to get you to focus on being a student, which is to be eligible. I think the NCAA, they need to really stick to that. We really need to be students first.

ROT: Is it an incentive-based thing?

DY: What do you mean?

ROT: Is it just, “We need guys, we want the best players,” so the incentive is to win games, not educate students who also happen to play college football?

DY: I don’t know if that’s the case. I just don’t know. I don’t think I have an opinion on that. I think that they want us to be eligible.

ROT: Well, just because the coaching staff is making millions of dollars, their jobs depend on winning games, right? Is there an incentive? Like: “I just want the guys playing. The student stuff is whatever.”

DY: If I can say anything in regards to that, my personal experience was that they could care less about school outside of meeting whatever numbers that made the university look good. So I remember, at one point, we were struggling. Cal had the worst grades for football players in the Pac-12. (Former head coach Jeff) Tedford was fired, and he would hit me like, “Are you still going to graduate this year?”… I wasn’t on the team (at the time). He was like, “Are you going to graduate?” I think I was one of the dudes that was slated to graduate, which would have helped the numbers that year. It wasn’t really about me. “Are you going to graduate, yes or no?” It doesn’t matter what the degree is in, so I guess that aligns with what you’re saying. They needed guys to play first, school second. 

ROT: Even though the NCAA’s rhetoric is the opposite. 

DY: They cared about the game. I think anybody that played will tell you, “Yo, we gotta play.” That was the bottom line. “Go to class, though!”

ROT: It’s an unsaid thing? Like read between the lines?

DY: You have to say you’re a student-athlete. When the coach comes into your mom’s house to try to get you to sign, (they say,) “Your kid’s going to get an education, they’re going to do this and that,” but …

ROT: That’s one of the main reasons you went to Cal, right?

DY: Yeah, it’s a great school. I knew that coming out, though. If something happens to me, which it did — I got injured — I’ll have this expensive receipt, which is my degree. I do think that it’s just a weird thing because you have to say the things, you have to sell school, but when you get there, I can’t say that school takes a bigger allocation in your priority list than the game itself. 

ROT: There’s a California (State) Assembly bill right now that would allow student-athletes to profit from their likeness, like if you started your business with that logo or sign endorsements. Do you think that’s a step in the right direction or is that misguided? 

DY: I don’t know. With that, there’s only a few athletes that could even take advantage of that. 

ROT: Like the star?

DY: The star, yeah. If you look at it for my era, that would have been Keenan Allen, maybe Mychal Kendricks, maybe Marvin Jones, C.J. Anderson perhaps, Tyson Alualu, Jahvid Best, Shane Vereen — those guys they would be killing it, rolling in the dough. But the rest of the 85 scholarship players? So I don’t know if that’s the right answer either. I think there has to be something that still keeps the playing field even because we all do the same amount of work.

ROT: So you think it might create a dynamic where guys are bitter or jealous of the guy (with the endorsement). He’s on a cereal box, and I’m here.

DY: For sure. What made the locker room the locker room was that we were all in this together at the same level, doing the same things. 

ROT: So that could fracture that?

DY: That could fracture that. There has to be a way that allows it to be even. You’re still an amateur athlete, but this is more fair because all of this is very top-heavy. The money comes in, stays at the top, and hey, we’ll give you 500 bucks. Or we’ll give you a thousand dollars. That’s peanuts. That’s peanuts, man.

Rory O’Toole is a Daily Cal sports staffer. Contact him at [email protected].