On the O’Bannon decision and NCAA autonomy

The NCAA does itself no favors by continuing to keep up the PR front that it is all about preserving amateurism because that word has lost whatever power it ever had, but maybe U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken did the organization a favor by weeding out such arguments up  front. 

Even before the forward pass was legalized, there were those in the press arguing simply recruiting players — and surely paying a scholarship — violated the ideal of amateurism. And from a common-sense standpoint, a scholarship is compensation for a service rendered, so it’s pretty amazing to think about how long this debate has continued.

In skimming the O’Bannon ruling and reading a variety of other interpretations (see below), a part that jumped out at me from the conclusion was the judge’s seeming to agree there is some merit to the idea the public cares not if the players get paid but how much. She prescribed a system in which the players get more but in a way that does not deviate severely from how they are already paid.

Putting aside how it is accounted for on a balance sheet, players already received part of the money made off of their names and likenesses, it was just paid back solely via scholarship (well and all the free training, food, equipment, gear, publicity, etc., but I digress). Now scholarships will be worth more, and apparently the new payments will be funded directly by money that came from media contracts as opposed to all revenue being lumped together and paid out in one general form (of a scholarship). I’m not sure where the extra payouts come from is really important, certainly not from a common-sense standpoint even if it does matter legally. The point is there is a lot of money and the players are going to get a little more, which the schools from the biggest conferences were trying to accomplish anyway.

The judge wrote allowing players to do endorsements would be a big enough departure from the NCAA’s standard operating procedure that it should not be required and instead offered up a way to basically expand the scholarship and add a stipend that could be construed as an extension of the scholarship. That to me is a huge endorsement for the NCAA and one that quite frankly I’m not sure was even necessary because I actually don’t think it would hurt anything to allow endorsements. Rather than raise everyone’s cut, I see endorsements as the best way to make whole the few who come the least closest to maximizing their worth in college. It’s also a move that doesn’t really affect anyone else — or even the athletics department’s bottom line.

But the moral of the story is she didn’t blow up the whole business model, and the remedies she prescribed have more or less already been ordered by the power conferences, which brings me to autonomy.

The move for more autonomy by the power conferences has been seen by some as the first step toward breaking away from the NCAA. These people are ignorant, at least in this case. It’s in fact a move to save as much of the current status quo as possible while also providing a better experience for the players who produce the most revenue. The folks in charge of the major conferences and administrators at the big schools are going to benefit as well, but to the victor go the spoils. If you don’t get that, welcome to the real world. As Jim Tressel once said when asked about a player expressing his desire for a salary on top of his scholarship, let him go start his own league and see what happens.

I suppose most people come to the conclusion the power conferences will eventually break away from the rest because they have little or no understanding of what the NCAA actually does and how it benefits its members, the big schools included. The NCAA handles the headaches that would have to be handled by someone if it weren’t around, namely running tournaments and enforcing rules. Cheer for the death of what you perceive the NCAA to be, but something will fill that power vacuum and you won’t like that either just like you don’t like the commissioner of your favorite pro sports league (even the competent ones!). The people in charge of the big schools understand the value of the NCAA as well as the power of the basketball tournament, and they know they need both so don’t spend much time worrying about the organization as a whole pulling apart… at least until it loses more lawsuits that strike closer to the heart of the NCAA model. That could happen, of course, so feel free to save your eulogies you erroneously wrote last week.

Legalities aside, I still happen to think the current system benefits far more people than it hurts, and that includes public businesses that benefit from the popularity of college sports, often in towns where there isn’t a whole lot of other industry, and that reform trumps TNT when it comes to fixing what’s wrong. I also think they’re at least trying to move in the right direction and providing more for those who make it without compromising what can be done for the other members of the system, though they might have started to do so too late.

I’m a proponent of the free market in the “real world,” but the system the NCAA members fell into (probably ass-backwards) actually works remarkably well for a huge number of people, so I am inclined to let it continue to exist with some better checks and balances and some tweaks to revenue distribution because I believe the lower half (probably more like the 3/4) of the labor force would be worse off in a free market in this particular case. I wouldn’t have created the system the way it is, but I’m certainly not going to blow it up simply for ideological reasons when there is a functional reality to point to.

The NCAA members dodged a bullet with the O’Bannon trial, but it may still catch them on the ricochet when the various parts of the judge’s ruling are applied to future cases that attack a larger part of the business model. In the meantime, one wonders if the NCAA also got lucky in how limited the damage was despite having so many of its nonsensical arguments pushed aside, but maybe the judge was conservative in her ruling with the knowledge of what is to come.

In following the trial via various reporters who were on the scene (including Stewart Mandel and Andy Staples), I was struck by how long it took NCAA lawyers to get to their one argument that actually makes sense when you state it out loud and think about it for more than 30 seconds or so — that the market would dry up without fans, and fans care about how the players are compensated.

Now, how does that apply in actual legal terms as far as determining fair play in a market? I don’t know, but ultimately it sounds like that was just about the only argument the judge had any time for, so it stands to reason that will need to be a bigger part of future cases that could do much more damage to the system as a whole.

Will the NCAA double down on its claim that fans won’t turn out if players are not distinguishable from their counterparts in the NFL or NBA? Does that matter from a legal standpoint? Those are the biggest questions left to answer.

Other analysis of the O’Bannon decision you might find useful: 

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