By TOM LINDLEY
CNHI News Service
— Many remember Ed O’Bannon as an All-American forward at UCLA in the early ‘90s. In the future, though, his collegiate basketball career might be nothing more than a footnote in his biography if his lawsuit against the NCAA, video game maker Electronic Arts and the Collegiate Licensing Co. is successful.
O'Bannon’s case and its ramifications could radically change – some might say destroy – college sports as we know them today.
It could be that a judge dismisses the action brought by O’Bannon and other college basketball and football players over the use of their likenesses without being paid. No matter how the case is decided, the lawsuit has become the biggest winner-take-all showdown to hit “amateur” athletics since, well, perhaps ever.
College sports were created so student-athletes from one school could engage in spirited weekend activities against lads from another school as a way to break the tension of academic pursuit. But over the generations sports became big business. Some started to question whether tuition and board was fair reimbursement for players while others, including the institutions they represented, became rich.
What has evolved is a showdown between old-style amateurism and a 21st century business that markets a product that cannot satisfy an insatiable public demand. This case is about the money – not just weekend pocket change to drop at a campus pizza joint but billions of dollars.
O’Bannon, the lead plaintiff, is joined by 16 athletes past and present, including former superstars Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson. The case was filed in 2009 and O’Bannon’s lawyers are now in court saying the matter deserves class-action status – a move that could potentially in bring in thousands of current or former athletes. If that happens, and if the athletes prevail, the entire structure of college sports as we know it could implode.
The vaunted NCAA has become a victim of its own success. It has long operated as an organization built around the principle of amateurism. According to Donald Remy, the NCAA’s chief legal counsel, that’s what is at stake in the O’Bannon case. “However, the plaintiff’s lawyers in the likeness case now want to make this about professionalizing a few student athletes to the detriment of others,” he said in a statement released to the media.
It had to be encouraging to O’Bannon’s legal team when the NCAA recently announced that it was severing its ties with EA Sports and the video company could no longer use the NCAA name or logo on its games.
Steve Berman, legal counsel for the plaintiffs, said it’s clear “the pressure over litigation” got to the NCAA.
The fact is athletes at the high-profile universities aren’t getting a fair shake, even though a four-year ride is valued at $100,000 and up.
College athletic directors and presidents must have gasped when they heard Maryland football coach Randy Edsall take the players' side. During amedia function he said he would “most definitely” join the lawsuit if he were a player because he was concerned that schools are making money off players while the kids get nothing. Ouch!
The lawsuit battle comes at the same time the NCAA is increasingly pressured to develop more responsive leadership. But how is that possible when mega-conference restructuring continues and schools with missions and budgets as varied as Michigan State and Morehead State fall under the same umbrella?
Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive summed up issues facing colleges and the NCAA this way: “As Albert Einstein once said, ‘We can’t solve the problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.’ ”
It’s hard to decide whether to feel pity or outrage for the kingmakers in college sports. Their product is a great one that drives the country’s sporting culture and economy. At the same time fans, players and even coaches recoil against what seems to be an uneven approach to dealing with issues of basic fairness that play out in stadiums throughout the country.
Clearly, college sports face a future that will be far different from what we know today.
When that happens, one only need to check out a video game and look for someone who resembles Ed O’Bannon to get an idea of why that happened.
Tom Lindley is a national columnist for CNHI News Service. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.