LOPRESTI: Compelling arguments, difficult questions in NCAA case

June 28, 2014

mike lopresti sportsIn a California court, it is crunch time for the NCAA, not to mention a moment of truth for college sports. This is about money, of course. What else would get so many lawyers and economists together?

Ed O’Bannon and his lawsuit want athletes to get their share of the gold mine from March Madness and the Rose Bowl and all the rest of the games that they play and we watch. If only it were that simple. But it isn’t. On either side.

You listen to the NCAA argue the sanctity of amateurism, and the need to keep college sport in its proper perspective.

And then you see John Calipari get a $52 million contract to coach basketball at Kentucky, and Nick Saban pull down $7 million a season to lead Alabama football. Perspective? What perspective?

You hear O’Bannon describe an unjust system, where the big-time college football or basketball player goes unrewarded for all the riches he brings to his school.

And then you read in Forbes magazine where the student debt in this nation is now $1.2 trillion. You learn about the Shippen family in Massachusetts that went $500,000 in the red sending three kids to school. Or Jake Stevens, the mechanical engineering student in Michigan who is homeless, spending all his money on tuition.

Had the Shippens produced three quality point guards, their college bill would be relative pocket change. If Stevens could only run and pass like Johnny Manziel, he would have a place to sleep tonight. Yeah, college athletes get rewarded. It’s called a nearly free college education—even for those with the most modest of academic credentials—while millions of their peers will be fighting to pay off their bills for years.

You hear the NCAA stress the job of protecting the interests of student athletes.

And then you see rigid rules that defy reason. A coach is perfectly free to move from one school to another, but a student can’t, without penalty. Coaches’ contracts are guaranteed. Scholarships are not. There is a clear move now to guarantee scholarships by some of the conferences, including the Big Ten. If this trial forced that hand, so be it.

You hear O’Bannon testify on the witness stand that, sure, Little Leaguers should get paid, too, if their games are bringing in the dough. Later, he would say he was just trying to make a point.

And then you realize, that is precisely the point. Once you go down the road of play-for-pay, you detour into all manner of absurd cul-de-sacs.

You hear conference commissioners and athletic directors say that everything in college athletics is not supposed to be about money.

And then you notice that virtually all their decisions—from kickoff time to scheduling to league affiliation—are about money. Who gets the best seats in an arena—the students there to watch their team, or the high-roller boosters?

You hear the O’Bannon side state what basketball and football players deserve.

And then you wonder about the baseball pitchers, the swimmers, the golfers. And the women’s sports. They have lawyers, too. You wonder where Title IX fits in Ed O’Bannon’s vision of a fairer universe.

You hear voices brand the NCAA as a tyranny, and call for its destruction.

And then you wonder just who those voices have in mind to supervise the chaotic and crazed landscape of athletics. A governmental agency, perhaps? So we want college football to operate like VA hospitals? The NCAA has to succeed.

You look at the NCAA and member schools, talking for years about making common-sense changes, yet seldom making them, asking for the unrest they now face.

But then you look at the world Ed O’Bannon wants. Where athletes complain of being exploited, even as they enjoy a free education many of them have not academically earned, while the best and brightest students plunge into horrific debt to get a degree that means something to them. Where athletes want and expect to be treated like students—scholarships, the easier forgiveness granted to youth—except when it is more profitable to be treated like employees.

It is a complex debate, and the more money that pours in, the more complex it gets. Neither side is all wrong, and neither side is all right. Whatever happened to a simple Saturday afternoon football game?

And so we wait to see which way it goes in Oakland.

If only the NCAA were not so often a prisoner in bureaucratic bondage, too handcuffed by its own rulebook to be sensible and practical.

If only O’Bannon’s argument for fair remuneration were not based on a disturbing philosophy—that the value of education is chump change.

I don’t know what the law books will tell the judge as she considers her decision. But I’m pretty sure of one thing: Little Leaguers shouldn’t get paid.•


Lopresti is a lifelong resident of Richmond and a graduate of Ball State University. He was a columnist for USA Today and Gannett newspapers for 31 years; he covered 34 Final Fours, 30 Super Bowls, 32 World Series and 16 Olympics. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mlopresti@ibj.com.

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