The much anticipated trial of former UCLA basketball player, Ed O’Bannon, started yesterday. The lawsuit alleges that the NCAA violates anti-trust law by not allowing players to be paid for their names, images and likenesses. While I agree that the use of likenesses should be forbidden without compensation, I have a hard time with some of the other aspects surrounding this issue. Most people want to take one side or the other and if I were forced to take a stand I suppose I lean against the athletes. At the end of the day we’re all responsible for ourselves and we should always enter situations understanding whatever implications come with them. But, that doesn’t mean there can’t be changes. And, if I’m being totally honest, I can see both sides because what we’re really dealing with is the unfortunate distinction between what is reality, what is legality and what players understand they are getting into. College sports and the NCAA can get away with a lot of stuff based on legal-ease but we all know the realities of playing college sports. On one hand, nobody is forcing these athletes to play. On the other hand, what is the alternative? Should you not play because you don’t want to get hoodwinked by the NCAA? Because you don’t want to get used and abused? That’s not fair either. There are realities of the state of collegiate athletics that need to be considered; the amount of time students are putting into their sport, what that prevents them from doing work-wise and school-wise, where their priorities have to lie and what is physically and mentally possible to achieve success.
At this point for me, it’s no longer about whether or not collegiate athletes should be compensated, it’s about college sports taking a stand on what it wants to be. If it wants to require these kids to devote the type of time into sports it currently requires than it’s hard to argue for not helping them out a little. If it wants to continue to perpetuate the “student-athlete” mantra it needs to back off with practice times and offseason requirements and regulations and “voluntary-mandatory” BS. Frankly, I vote for the latter. I want to it to return to a more fundamental version of amateur sports. Everything can’t be pro sports, that’s why we have pro sports leagues. At some point, a line has to be drawn because if it’s not, where do we stop? Ed O’Bannon made the connection in his testimony yesterday about what you do about the Little League World Series. When asked if Little League players should be paid for appearing on TV he said “if they are generating revenue.”
He backed off that statement when he spoke to the media after court saying “I probably should’ve thought a little bit before saying that.” “Little Leaguers getting paid? Probably not.”
I say why not? What are we talking about here? What does age have to do with anything? I think it’s a valid point. If they are selling ads around programming that includes your talents and your faces and your skills how is the Little League World Series any different than a college football game? But that’s the slippery slope you go down when you don’t draw a line between professional and amateur sports. There has to be a line and that’s why I’m for college programs reducing its emphasis on the amount of time you spend in practice and the ability of players to get jobs. Let’s revert back to a more fundamental amateur system and level the playing field that way. Let it be an extra-curricular activity for these kids. Let them have a life outside the practice facility and if becoming a professional is an occupation they want to pursue, it can be treated like any other student. What you put in, is what you get out. Unfortunately, are we too far on the other side of capitalism in college sports for that to be feasible?
The other thing is this. We don’t make the distinction clear enough, when we talk about paying college athletes, between pay for play and using a student’s likeness to make money. Nobody should ever be able to use any of our likenesses for their own profit, period. So, I think college athletes have a leg to stand on when they discuss that. But that’s not even a matter of sports or collegiate athletics. It’s a matter of humanity. You can’t be me, and you can’t claim to be me, and you can’t use my face for your benefit. It’s as simple as that. If a player is able to make money using his likeness, I don’t see why that’s a problem. If a local car company wants to use a player to sell cars and pay him some money to do so, good for him. That’s just something he gets to do that others don’t get to do.
Here’s the rub: If that were the case, I think it would become very clear which players are able to make money that way and it’s not going to be very many of them. I would argue one or two a year, if that. That’s where all this pay for play stuff becomes bogus, because most of the players are not what’s drawing the fans in. A lot of guys like to say, “this school is making money on MY back” when that’s not necessarily the case. It’s like, dude, you’re the left guard. The moms and grandmas and half blitzed sorority girls at the game have no clue who you are. And I would argue they don’t know who most of you are. We pretend the majority of fans are in tune with depth charts and intricate sports knowledge. Not true. I think most know the stars and that’s it. Therefore, it’s hard to say the players bring the fans in. To me, the jersey brings more fans than the individual. The PROGRAM is making the school money. The institution of college football is making the school money. The social fad of saying you’re a fan of a team and attending a game is making the school money. Think about that. Whether you want to accept it or not, it is a sign of social status to say you are attending this game or that game. So, in two, three or four years when you’re gone, the PROGRAM will still be making money. Therefore, I’m not sure it has as much to do with the individuals. There may be one or two players a year who you say “I will pay to go see that player in college.” Otherwise, you’re paying to go see your favorite college football or basketball team, with all its tradition and pageantry, play that day. In fact, I would argue that the game is merely one part of the day. That, it’s almost a mask for the real reason to gather. What is a college football Saturday or a college basketball Saturday? It’s a time for fans and alums to bask in the traditions and pageantry of their school. It’s a reason for old buddies to get together and rehash old stories. Talk about the good ole days. It’s a bubble of security for grown men and women to get drunk, act like idiots and feel alright about it. It’s not about individual players, you know why? Because those same fans will be back for years and years to come. It’s those same half blitzed sorority girls, who want to be a part of the party, running down to the bookstore to buy a jersey. Not because of the number on the front, but because they want something cute and festive to wear to the game. And when those half blitzed sorority girls graduate, a new crop of half blitzed sorority girls will regenerate and obnoxiously cackle all the way to the bookstore to buy whatever jersey is on the rack at the time. So it is the program, whose tradition is so richly entrenched, that is making the money. Go to Clemson, a team perennially known to drop its fans on their heads for underachievment. The campus is blanketed with hundreds of thousands every home game. Most big time programs enjoy the same luxury.
While discussing the Rashad McCants story I talked about taking control of your own future and taking responsibility in your own education or career. The same concept came up in the O’Bannon case and it clearly illustrates the conflict in college sports. In his testimony, O’Bannon said “I was there strictly to play basketball,” and “I did basically the minimum to make sure I kept my eligibility academically so I could continue to play.” Well, who made that mandate? Did the school tell you that? Did they tell you that you were there strictly to play basketball or did you find a way to justify that? Why did you do the minimum academically? You didn’t have to. You could’ve done more work, but you chose not to. According to the report I read on CBSsports.com, O’Bannon ended up agreeing with the NCAA attorney that he had the opportunity to spend more time studying but that he chose not to take advantage of that time. Do the myths of rigor ring true?
Another reason I tend to lean against college athletes on this issue is because there seems to be a very “sour grapes” aspect to all of this. How many athletes who have been at least semi-successful in the NFL or NBA do you hear complaining about this stuff? Very few. Because they have made their money. It’s the ones who now feel like they weren’t able to capitalize at the peak of their skill and marketability who are upset about all of this, and subsequently, they have infiltrated the minds of a bunch of young kids who otherwise would only be grateful for having a chance to play big time college sports. Now what you have are a bunch of kids going “yeah, what he said,” once they get a couple years in and realize how difficult it is going to be for them to A)play pro sports, and B)graduate and get a job they can rely on. I contend that most high school athletes are so excited about being able to go play a major college sport that the prospect of getting paid to play isn’t even a thought in their mind until it’s perpetuated by a bunch of jaded former athletes whose pro careers either never materialized or flamed out shortly after they left school. Ed O’Bannon spent 2 years in the NBA before 8 more in Europe and the ABA.
Let me make it clear that I understand both sides of the argument. If you are a person that fights against compensation for college athletes, you’re in denial about what the realities of collegiate sports entail. If you fight for it, you don’t want to recognize the commitment a player enters voluntarily and the role that the deeply entrenched tradition of big time programs plays.
These days, we’re conditioned to run to a corner and take a stand. Discussion be damned. If we’re honest, the waters of collegiate compensation are much murkier than we make them. The institution of collegiate athletics needs to do us all a favor and pick a lane. Either move to a professional business model or revert back to fundamental amateurism.
Alec Campbell, Sports Radio 92.9 The Game
Follow Alec On Twitter @AlecCampbell5