If you, alongside the NCAA, love holding fast to the dusty ideals of amateurism, you probably frown upon the decision reached Friday by U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken. In what has come to be known as the O’Bannon case, Wilken ruled that the NCAA’s ban on athletes profiting from their own names, images and likenesses was an unreasonable restraint of trade.
Of course it was.
In a 99-page report, the judge indicated, in so many words, that she didn’t buy — or find sound legal reasoning in — the NCAA’s desperate leaning on its glorified version of amateurism, and, considering the multimillion-dollar television deals made on the shoulders of student-athletes who get relative nickels and dimes for their efforts, saw it for what it was and what it always has been: an excuse for institutions to contain and control costs and limit liability.
There’s no real romance in that.
That kind of amateurism just means somebody other than the athletes is getting paid. Usually, they wear suits, have large offices with leather-bound books on the shelves and use a lot of polysyllabic words. In a lot of cases, they wear sweatshirts or T-shirts with whistles around their necks and talk about their kids being their top priority.
Either way, spinning a few coins at athletes in the form of scholarships and calling it noble tradition while the powers of college football and basketball get fat on the profits of that pageantry is disingenuous, silly and straight-up wrong. It’s a sham that’s gone on for too long.
Why should institutions of higher learning encourage their coaches to call for their players to sacrifice themselves for the good of the team, for the alma mater, so that team can win and win some more, allowing said coaches to get $5 million a year while the players who are making the winning possible get … what, memories, along with bruises and busted-up knees?
Sure, student-athletes don’t have to play football or basketball. But let’s not be naïve here. They’re pursuing their dreams, and if that pursuit — as well as their names, images and likenesses — also happens to net schools millions of dollars in TV money, shouldn’t they be able to benefit at least to a small proportion from that cash? Wilken apparently listened to what the NCAA — and television folks who testified — had to say regarding NIL rewards for individual players, and instead of ruling that each should be remunerated to varying degrees separately — what would Johnny Manziel have been worth in pure economic terms last season? — she set equal collective limits for players on teams as a whole.
That was a bonus for the NCAA.
Without getting bogged down in legalese, in short, the judge nailed it in her ruling — and she did so without obliterating the current college model.
Had she reasoned further away from the NCAA, which she certainly could have done, the judge might have set into motion a total deconstruction and rebuild of college sports in the future. As is, she saw injustice in the model — and enough rights money for schools not just to pay the full expenses of education, but also some $5,000 annually to student-athletes to be held in trust until they are done playing.
For the traditionalists out there who want to go on wearing their raccoon coats, waving their school pennants, swallowing their goldfish and clinging to yesterday’s faux nobility: Is that really so bad? Is that so revolutionary that it will turn college athletes into mercenaries and threaten, as the NCAA said it could, the likelihood of fans continuing to follow college sports?
Already, the Power 5 conferences have been sanctioned, barring some unexpected administrative backlash from the collective NCAA membership, to make their own rules about covering for their athletes the full costs of education. Now, football and basketball players could receive additional deferred compensation.
Some doomsayers still claim such changes will damage or eliminate other college sports, that they might ruin bowl games and wreck standard business within conferences, but that seems an overreaction. The few hundred million dollars it would require for equal limited payouts to be put in trust will be lifted from money taken from the sale of NIL rights — without any financial foundations cracking.
Which is to say, it will be OK.
Appeals will be forthcoming. Legal arguments will rage on. And, in the months and years ahead, more far-reaching cases will be ruled upon, such as sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler’s pending case that could — if it falls a certain way — force the NCAA to pay athletes whatever the market will pay them. If that were to happen, college sports might cross the threshold into professional sports, far beyond the focused decision here.
According to Wilken’s ruling, college sports will remain exactly that, only now it will be a bit more just.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
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