At long last, the business model — and it is a business — of America’s major college football and basketball programs is being challenged. Make no mistake, the outcome of a lawsuit in an Oakland federal courtroom could rock the world of collegiate athletics.
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilkin is presiding over an antitrust action brought by former players alleging the National Collegiate Athletic Association conspired with business partners to profit from use of the players’ likenesses without their consent.
While a ruling expected in late summer ultimately could radically change college athletics, it will not do so immediately because NCAA President Mark A. Emmert has vowed to fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Wilkin has already ruled that this particular suit is only about Division I college football and basketball programs, but a decision in the plaintiffs’ favor would certainly affect all collegiate sports.
The suit has been brought by former UCLA star basketball player Ed O’Bannon and others and since joined by such basketball royalty as Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell.
O’Bannon’s argument is that the NCAA cannot prohibit college players from sharing in the proceeds from broadcasts and video games in which they or their likenesses are featured. That would essentially mean that college players could get paid for playing their sport, which the NCCA currently prohibits.
The NCAA will counter that compromising the amateur status of college sports will jeopardize the future of intercollegiate athletics. They will also argue that current rules help ensure competitive balance among the collegiate programs.
But those arguments ignore that many college programs — especially Division I football and basketball — have already become a cesspool for illicit compensation.
The suit began nearly five years ago and at the time included EA Sports, which makes video games, and the Collegiate Licensing Co., which handles the licensing rights for many of the nation’s universities. The game company and the licensing firm agreed to a $40 million settlement with the plaintiffs and were removed from the suit. But the action against the NCAA remains.
But the NCAA seemed to weaken its own arguments in this case by agreeing to a $20 million settlement in another case involving former players and similar issues. That suit, which was scheduled for trial next March, was brought by former San Ramon Valley High School star quarterback Sam Keller, who played college football at both Arizona State and Nebraska.
Our heart is with the players on this, but we realize that an unequivocal ruling in their favor would create chaos in college sports. Our fondest hope is for a settlement that establishes reasonable rules for sharing the wealth that the players help generate.