As we’ve talked about before here at SDS, the leaders of today’s college athletics world have their eyes on a class action lawsuit led by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon. If you’re unfamiliar with the suit, the following from Grantland will get you up to speed:
Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken denied the NCAA’s motion in an antitrust lawsuit brought against the association by former UCLA All-American Ed O’Bannon and a number of former college athletes in 2009. At issue is the NCAA’s right to profit forever from the names, images, and likenesses of the people who play the games without compensating the players at all. (The suit was kicked off by O’Bannon’s anger that his likeness had been used in an NCAA-licensed video game.) The NCAA sought to deny O’Bannon and his fellow plaintiffs — who include both Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell — standing as a class to challenge the NCAA on antitrust grounds. (A class-certification hearing is scheduled for June.) Wilken ruled for the players and allowed the case to proceed. If the court were to eventually decide in favor of the plaintiffs, it would force the NCAA to fork over billions of dollars in television revenues and licensing fees. It could also force the development of a more equitable system in which the people who do the work get a decent share of the profits. All the profits.
Many following the lawsuit believe this could be the catalyst that leads to some form of college athlete compensation (other than the current benefits like scholarships).
In response to these latest events in the lawsuit, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany recently told SI’s Andy Staples that the Big Ten would potentially opt out of any system where players are being paid. This so-called “de-emphasis” of athletics by the Big Ten is viewed by most as merely a bluff, but Staples makes a good observation regarding it.
If the Big Ten schools dropped athletic scholarships and moved to Division III or into the non-scholarship FCS realm occupied by the schools of the Ivy and Pioneer leagues, it would inject some intellectual honesty into this debate. Schools and leagues say they want to run amateur sports that enrich the collegiate experience, but then they run football and men’s basketball like professional sports. This would mean a group of 14 schools leaving millions of dollars on the table to run true amateur athletic programs that exist only to enhance the university experience of their students.
If this happened, I would stand and applaud. Finally, someone would be putting higher education ahead of high finance. But the actions of the Big Ten’s presidents in the past few years make it difficult to believe they would follow the example of the Ivy League schools and Big Ten founding member the University of Chicago, which de-emphasized sports in the 1940s.
Staples is correct in his observations. The tension that exists in college sports – namely college football – is that the conferences are ranking in billion dollar television revenues while repeatedly championing the idea of amateurism. As the money has soared, the tension has increased.
It appears we’re heading toward a breaking point where either the athletes are compensated or these institutions re-focus on real amateur athletics and education as Delany is threatening.
With most things, the ultimate solution will likely be somewhere in the middle. As we’ve talked about before, the Olympic solution is a viable one. Forget paying players directly and negotiating contracts with athletes. However, allow athletes to make money outside of the game. Allow them to accept endorsements. Johnny Manziel is a great example. Don’t pay the players, but allow them to get paid elsewhere. This would relieve the building tension, and keep the Big Ten around for the SEC to continue to beat up on.