Commentary: NCAA Better Ready Itself for Tough Legal Battle

Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit threatens to cause seismic shift in college sports. 

Posted: 05/27/2014 12:17 PM EDT
Young Ed O'bannon

You don’t always realize what a good deal you have until someone comes along and threatens to take it all away.

That’s how the NCAA and its president, Mark Emmert, must be feeling about their situation with student-athletes after a judge ruled Ed O’Bannon’s antitrust suit against the organization can go to trial June 9.

The decision puts at risk the NCAA’s notion that college athletes are students first. All the trifling gestures the organization has made in defense of such a stance seem for naught.

The honest-to-goodness truth, however, is no one knows what a federal court might rule. Judges in district courts can be as unpredictable as forest fires. They can go unchecked in all sorts of directions with little there to stop them, and if Emmert & Co. thought delay, delay, delay was a smart strategy to take, they thought wrong.

They were also wrong if they thought O’Bannon, a star forward at UCLA in the 1990s, would abandon efforts to control his image and to get compensation for how the NCAA and its commercial partners had been using it. O’Bannon didn’t walk away; he found allies and lawyers who thought he had a solid case, a case that could wreck the myth of college athletics.

Who doesn’t know the myth?

You know, the myth that says students are amateur athletes. The myth that calls it fair compensation that basketball and football players at least the ones at those Division I colleges that play big-time sports paid in tuition and basic room and board.

The business of intercollegiate athletics has never left itself room to consider that those men who suit up for their alma maters are “employees.” They’re not on ivy-covered campuses to donate their services for chump change while the coaches, athletic departments and the NCAA itself fatten their bottom lines on the backs of the O’Bannons, the Oscar Robertsons and the Bill Russells.

Nor has the NCAA seriously considered allowing an athlete, as it does coaches, to hop around colleges without consequences. And, of course, the thought of letting an athlete peddle his services on an open market is, well … the most vulgar of notions too horrific to even discuss in polite company.

While it isn’t the central focus in the O’Bannon case, the issue will be discussed in courts. It will be discussed where it should have been discussed decades ago, back when the NCAA looked at revenue figures in the millions and not in the billions.

The cost for its myopic view on money, on student-athletes and on college sports might be a dismantling of the institution itself.

It never should have come to this, though. Over the years, the NCAA had chances aplenty to rethink its business model and find a solution to a problem that started as a whisper before becoming a full-fledged screaming match.

The federal court won’t allow for much screaming. There, the two sides will present reasoned arguments for their positions.

For O’Bannon’s side, it simply needs to avoid tripping over the mountain of evidence in its case. For the NCAA, its case isn’t nearly as simple; it must convince a judge that greed is good, that intercollegiate athletics, built on the discounted labor of mere teenagers, doesn’t need the court’s intervention.

Emmert & Co. will maintain their system of athletic servitude works fine, and it does work fine, unless you happen to be the student-athlete whose back has done all the heavy lifting for none of the financial rewards.

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(Photo: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

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