Challenging the myth of college sports
Odds are unless you’re a devout follower of college basketball, you probably barely remember Ed O’Bannon. That, however, could change if the former member of the 1995 UCLA national champion team succeeds in a lawsuit that would dramatically alter the way college sports are operated.
O’Bannon is the lead plaintiff in a suit against the NCAA seeking compensation for using O’Bannon’s likeness in a videogame. The game is licensed by the NCAA but none of the profits are shared with the student-athletes who actually play the games. A hearing later today in federal court in Oakland, California, will determine if the suit can be certified as a class action and if it is, it opens the door for thousands of student-athletes past and present to share in some of the riches that the NCAA and its member schools have been hoarding for decades.
If you play videogames, especially NCAA basketball, you likely had a 6’8’’ power forward from UCLA wearing number 31 on your team, or played against him. He has no name but his stats and game are eerily similar to that of O’Bannon, a college Hall of Fame member whose number was retired by UCLA, but whose NBA career amounted a little more than a cup of coffee. If O’Bannon’s name and likeness had been used in an NBA-licensed game, he would have shared in those profits, but because he was an “amateur” in his college days, he got little more than a monthly stipend to go with his scholarship while the NCAA and UCLA reaped billions from television contracts and, later, video games.
The NCAA has been adamantly opposed to paying student-athletes, claiming they get a free education and adding payment to that would open up a Pandora’s box of problems, including the smear on the image that college athletics are just part of the learning experience. And they say this with a straight face.
What everyone is eyeing are the mind-boggling contracts the NCAA has that are on par with anything professional sports leagues earn. The NCAA is in the midst of a $6.4 billion football television contract as well as a $10.8 billion deal to televise college basketball. None of that includes lesser contracts to televise championships in other sports such as women’s basketball, ice hockey, or lacrosse or the myriad of contracts that individual athletic conferences have with other networks. Add it up and the NCAA should be shaking in its boots at the prospect of O’Bannon’s suit.
And make no mistake it is about the money on both sides. UMass didn’t decide to move up its football program to the Bowl Championship Series, formerly known as Division 1, to augment the student-athlete experience. Nor did Boston College abandon its long ties with the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference in order to broaden the academic curriculum. The moves are made because there’s money to be made.
The argument is that student-athletes get valuable scholarships and a chance to earn a degree. But so do those who get scholarships to major in chemistry, biology, economics, or journalism and then have the opportunity to earn more money either through work-study or in co-op positions. The NCAA severely restricts what a player can earn as well as what gifts they can accept. No such restrictions are placed on any other student in a university.
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