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June 18, 2014

TOM LINDLEY: NCAA could become casualty of paid athletes

The time has come in Ed O’Bannon’s class action, antitrust case against the NCAA when lawyers start nibbling their fingernails, those in charge of athletic departments feel their heartbeats climb, and athletes try to get a grip on how things will change if their side prevails.

The first week of the trial had attorneys for the plaintiffs arguing and presenting witnesses who suggested that athletes in big-time programs should be compensated for use of their names, images and likenesses.

Now the NCAA’s lawyers will make their presentation in U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken’s courtroom, claiming that colleges athletes are different from those on professional teams and their amateur status should be preserved.

The case, which was filed in 2009 and is being heard in Oakland, Calif., is expected to last about three weeks before Judge Wilken, and not a jury, hands down a decision. It will be a ruling that some have long sought and others have long feared.

So-called power conferences, which have prospered from lucrative television and marketing contracts, now find themselves defending an arrangement that enriches almost everyone except for those who play the games.

That situation is at the heart of the O’Bannon case. Years after the star basketball player left UCLA, his likeness is still featured in video games that benefit his university but not him. Like every other college athlete, O’Bannon signed away his rights to future proceeds in exchange for a scholarship that included room, board, tuition and books.

Most courtroom observers think the NCAA is fighting a losing cause, especially when coaches like Alabama’s Nick Saban and Kentucky’s John Calipari are paid about $7 million annually, universities build athletic superstructures, and players don’t receive scholarships equal to the full cost of attending college. There’s just no way to defend a practice like that.

Change is in the offing. Harder to predict is how college sports will be reshaped in the next five or 10 years.

The athletic director at the University of West Virginia sent word last week warning “Mountaineer Nation” of difficult times if O’Bannon and the other plaintiffs prevail.

In a piece posted to the sports department’s website,  Oliver Luck wrote: “This case has the potential to change fundamentally the 100-year-old relationship between student-athletes and their universities.”

Luck said college athletics may evolve in ways none of us can imagine.

“My advice is to buckle up, Mountaineer fans, because the issues that will be resolved over the next few months, including O’Bannon, autonomy and full cost of attendance (players’ scholarships), very well may change the landscape in college athletics.”

If the plaintiffs prevail, what would be a fair outcome? If a college game is televised, who would share in the proceeds? Would the quarterback receive more money than a sub who rarely gets off the bench? How would women athletes be compensated when their contests don’t draw the same large viewing audiences of their male counterparts? Title IX, which requires women athletes be treated in a like manner as their male counterparts, will likely be a consideration in any plan adopted by college administrators.

How about athletes who perform on so-called minor sports teams? How are they treated?

Then there are questions about how athletic programs run by schools outside the power conferences will fare in match-ups against better-funded schools, especially if their athletes are compensated differently? Would the NCAA, as we know it today, even exist in the future?

It is relatively easy to critique the injustices of the current system. It is much more difficult to image a revolutionized college sports operation and how it would operate.

This much we know: Big money has made a big mess out of something once considered sacred.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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