Commentary: Fight the Higher Education Plantation System

Former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon is suing for control of his image or money from the NCAA and EA Sports for using it.

Posted: 07/15/2013 10:45 AM EDT
(Photo: GettyImages)


You can only look at Ed O’Bannon one way: He’s the Curt Flood of college basketball.

What sports fan doesn’t remember Flood and his steadfast belief in a principle? Taking Major League Baseball to court, he sacrificed his pro career in the early 1970s for the freedom to control his destiny.

O’Bannon, a basketball star at UCLA in the early 1990s, isn’t suing to control his destiny; he’s retired from basketball. Instead, his lawsuit is over control of his likeness, which the NCAA and its partner EA Sports profit from without compensation to O'Bannon.

Lawyers have been playing table tennis with O’Bannon’s suit since he filed it in 2009. The NCAA fired its latest legal guns last Wednesday in a case that has now become a class-action suit. It is demanding money for athletes whose skills fill the NCAA’s coffers with billions of dollars.

The questions the O’Bannon case raises are these:

—   Are board and books enough for student-athletes?

—   Who controls the player’s image: the NCAA or the student-athlete?

The answer to the first is easy: No. Coaches at football and basketball factories like Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Ohio State, Oregon, Southern California, Louisiana State, Michigan, Notre Dame make millions, and their salaries continue to shoot toward the sun. Revenues from football and men’s basketball continue to grow, and the money goes into building brick-and mortar shrines that professional teams envy.

Not to pick on Michigan, but the Wolverines redid their mammoth stadium and put a new face on Crisler Arena to make it one of the wonders of the college hoops world. Michigan recruits the best athletes and gives them a chance at a great education and a taste of Blue and Maize glory. Ohio State, Notre Dame and the rest do likewise.

On the open market, their student-athletes could fetch a handsome wage. But the market isn’t open for a high-school graduate to sell his athletic skills to a college. His payment is a scholarship and a cockeyed dream he might cash in as a pro if he happens to be good or lucky enough.

That’s not anything more than a fool’s bargain. The schools have all the chips, and the student-athletes have nothing but the glory and life after the game to make a few dollars for themselves. They have their image; certainly, it has value to them in the video world that EA dominates, right?

Hardly. The NCAA controls their image with an iron-fist. It can sell the images; it markets the images and pays players not a penny.

O’Bannon couldn’t make sense of that craziness, which is the reason he sued.

Who can make sense of it, though? One man does all the hard work; someone else gets all the money.

Sounds like indentured servitude, but the United States outlawed slavery altogether after the Civil War ended. How can it flourish in the egalitarian world of higher education? Shouldn’t the right-minded leaders in academe notice the exploitation of young men (and women) who dress for the alma mater?

O’Bannon thought so. But when he realized college leaders did not, he took the NCAA to court — hoping, praying, believing that the legal system will see what the organization and college presidents have created: a plantation system.

That’s what an athlete must still do to win his freedom, and another Black man has stepped into the spotlight to fight the kind of injustice Flood fought nearly a half-century ago. Will he lose as Flood did?

 

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

 

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