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Mark Emmert, NCAA president, is having a tough weekend. Not only does he have to maintain the reputation of the NCAA while convincing everyone he is not actually Newt Gingrich, he’s doing it while the floodgates of high profile lawsuits are starting to open. We can hear the support beams creaking and groaning under the pressure as the NCAA tries to stem the tide of litigation. People are really starting to talk.
In 2009, Ed O’Bannon, a basketball star at UCLA and member of their 1995 championship winning team, filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA. He was calling into question the NCAA’s ability to use his story and image in marketing campaigns, video games, promotions, etc. until the end of time, without having to compensate the man. The lawsuit wasn’t just about him, because this happens to all athletes in the lucrative college sports.
Basically, he and his initial cohorts, guys with names like Oscar Robertson (averaging a triple-double before they even started mixing the paint for the 3-point line) and Bill Russell (more rings than fingers), argue that the NCAA fixed the price of their collegiate glory at zero. It may make a little more sense when you consider the NCAA and it’s schools are paying for tuition, room & board, and physical therapy, but the logic crumbles when the athletes have moved on from their universities, no longer receiving any benefit for their labor at the time.
At first glance, this may seem like a disgruntled former player trying to make a buck off American sport’s favorite organization exhibiting cartel behavior. However, the game has changed and six current football players have now joined the lawsuit. This not only raises the profile of the case, but also means that the NCAA could face a class-action lawsuit from thousands of plaintiffs because current members of the organization see fit to change the way the NCAA- an immensely profitable non-profit- hoards its cash.
The NCAA has never dealt with this cognitive dissonance head on. Yes, college athletes save enormous amounts of money in tuition costs thanks to their scholarships, but the NCAA loves that point because it distracts from other practices already implemented in the way they compensate student-athletes.
Emmert just last year allowed for a $300 “stipend” for athletes to use for non-scholastic events. The NCAA is already paying its athletes to go out and have a good time on the weekend, but they just can’t say it. How they determined $300 to be a morally defensible amount, I have no idea. They don’t want to have the conversation, so they use appeasement strategies.
The NCAA could very well lose this lawsuit. That’s why they try to appeal to Average Sports Fan, by saying this lawsuit “could end college sports as we know it.” Or they try to turn the factions of collegiate athletes on each other, with hand-wringing over how this will take away from the available funds for non-revenue generating sports. Not only has this argument been refuted by certain studies, but Emmert got paid $1.7 million last year. High profile coaches like Rick Pitino and Nick Saban, the men tasked with farming and nurturing the lucrative crops of talent at big schools, are often the highest paid public employees in their respective states. TV contracts are in the billions of dollars. I think they can find some funding.
I mean, any organization that starts selling t-shirts for $25 bucks based on a national outpouring of sympathy for a player with one of the most gruesome injuries in recent history should be closely examined. Kevin at Louisville can’t peddle his wares on his own to save up money for what could be a lifetime of struggle with his injury, because that would mean he’s not an amateur anymore.
Continuing with the theme of injuries with potentially lifelong consequences, there was a second bout of lawsuit news the NCAA got over the weekend, the one that really makes the term student-athlete about as oxymoronic as jumbo shrimp . Some college football players- unable to pad their helmets with the cash the NCAA is sitting on and paying out to top executives- and other student athletes are trying to take their concussion lawsuit to class action status. See, the NCAA knows that having an ironclad concussion protocol could lead to more legal examination, so they leave it up to each school to decide. Yet, as the ESPN story mentions, the NCAA learned that trainers and coaches send their players back into the game exhibiting concussion like symptoms, and made no policy changes. The hands-off approach means players have been getting treated like dispensable commodities in the name of winning and glory. Instead of dealing with the issue upfront, they could be facing another case with thousands of plaintiffs.
How can an organization overseeing educational institutions not have a clear policy on protecting athletes brains, the very organs they are supposed to be nurturing and developing when the students aren’t getting run over by Jadaveon Clowney (If I were a college athlete I would just play it safe and assume he’s everywhere, even at a D-II softball game) under the bright lights?
The NFL at least has the libertarian argument that their employees are well compensated, professional adults who know the risks (or as much as Roger Goodell will tell them about the risks) of their occupation and can make their own decision on just how long they would like to have their brains turned to mush. And yet, the NFL still is getting sued by former players. The NCAA doesn’t seem to have much to stand on in this case. One of the facts they trotted out was that the rate of concussions has remained stable over the past 8 years, like this is a cause for celebration. All that extra muscle gained from creatine and whey protein and who knows what else isn’t making things worse! By the way, that stable concussion rate still means there were nearly 30,000 concussions over a five year span in the previous decade.
The NCAA wasn’t the only one trotting out strange statements. It was disconcerting to hear the comments of the lawyer on the plaintiff’s side in this case, worrying about how college football could die if the talent well dries up. He seems to be missing his own point with dull comments like that one. It was safety first, right? Not how can we keep this money making machine going despite all the pain and suffering it may cause? The questions are starting to be asked. There could very well be a fundamental shift in the way we view and treat amateur athletics in this nation.
These lawsuits are part of the reason the NCAA decided not to re-up with EA Sports for their NCAA college football series, citing potential legal ramifications. So EA sports is going to be named “College Football” instead of “NCAA Football”, and possibly not going to feature any NCAA teams or likenesses. Or you know, certain schools and conferences will just ignore their power broker and strike lucrative licensing deals themselves.
It’s been an ugly weekend for the NCAA, and alot of questions are going to be asked of them in the coming weeks. Questions that the powers that be at NCAA don’t want to answer. Conversations about the waning meaning of amateurism in this country, and the absurdity of attaching big name, branded college sports to institutions of higher learning. It’s enough to give anyone a splitting headache. Emmert should look into getting Bayer as a sponsor so they can take a truckload of aspirin. All the caffeine that their partner Coca-Cola can provide isn’t going to be enough this time around.
Photo source: http://hitemwheretheyaint.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/mark-emmert-hammer.jpeg