A federal judge ruled last week that the National Collegiate Athletic Association could not ban member schools from paying players, or bar athletes from earning money from the use of their name and image, an important and long-awaited precedent. The class-action lawsuit that led to the ruling, O’Bannon, et al vs. NCAA, et al, is relatively narrow in its scope but has implications for at least two other lawsuits against the collegiate association.
The suit also opens the door to welcome changes in the way collegiate sports operate in the United States, and exposes some of the idiosyncratic hypocrisy of the NCAA.
Universities in the major football and basketball conferences — which are the focus of the O’Bannon suit — are spending millions of dollars a year on building newer and better stadiums and facilities. They spend millions more on the salaries of high-profile coaches, who can then turn around and make even more money by selling the sponsorship rights for the footwear and athletic gear worn by their team.
Meanwhile, the athletes are prevented from sharing in any of this largesse.
Many commentators have opined that these college athletes should quit whining about the money, since they’re already getting scholarship money, plus all the special treatment and benefits that accrue to top athletes at big universities. Also, the argument goes, the big money sports subsidize the other, less lucrative sports, such as wrestling, swimming and soccer.
But this disagreement at its heart is not about the money. No one contests that college scholarship athletes get a pretty good deal: Their college education is paid for. This disagreement is more about power — the power of a cartel, in this case the NCAA, to make the rules as it sees fit, to make billions of dollars off the work of these athletes, without any real representation or ability for the athletes to have a say.
This is not about the behavior or the actions of the athletes — the majority of whom play hard, win or lose, and gain from the experience regardless of outcome. This is about the actions and the behavior of the NCAA, which for too long has been operating under its own set of standards and holding the athletes to another. While negotiating massive TV contracts, the NCAA has banned or penalized multiple athletes for violations of arcane or idiosyncratic rules that disproportionately harm athletes from poorer backgrounds. Joe Nocera of The New York Times has documented many of these cases in the past few years, where athletes are punished for the deeds of others but toe the line and take the penalty because to fight would mean to forfeit any hope of a collegiate athletic career.
The amateur ideal — that collegiate athletes play and compete at this high level out of a simple love of the game and a desire for self-improvement — is still in large part true. Most collegiate athletes do not compete with the hope of developing a professional sports career.
But the profile, visibility and profitability of “big money” sports have grown rapidly beyond that principle into a commercial behemoth to rival the NFL or NBA. For the NCAA to claim that it was persecuting 18-year-old scholarship athletes over $200 rule violations, while pocketing billions in licensing fees, all out of an earnest desire to preserve “amateurism,” is rank hypocrisy.
This hypocrisy wasn’t leading anyone to burn their March Madness tournament bracket out of solidarity with the athletes, or to toss their Tostitos Fiesta Bowl nachos in the compost due to pangs of guilt.
But it does call into question the principles that the NCAA is passing on to our student-athletes — the ones who toil in relative obscurity, who are really in it out of a desire to further their athletic education. When the NCAA is represented on television and the popular imagination by the full-court press of marketing and hype that is the Bowl Championship Series or the March Madness bracket mania, can it really argue that selling chips or cars is about furthering education or about life lessons?
No — it’s about money.
The O’Bannon case finally gets that truth on the table, in a forum where the NCAA can’t hide or wiggle away from the unwanted spotlight, and where it doesn’t get to bend the rules as it sees fit.
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