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July 27, 2013

O'Bannon aims a stake at the NCAA's heart


It’s unlikely that the NCAA or the game companies will be able to dismiss such “exploitation” as an honest mistake or misunderstanding. As cited in the lawsuit, then-NCAA president Myles Brand said in 2008 that “(t)he right to license or sell one’s name, image and likeness is a property with economic value.” And the game companies should know better; professional athletes Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, for example, have been conspicuously absent from similar games in the past because of licensing disputes.

In other words, even if they won’t admit it, the NCAA and EA Sports probably knew all along that one can’t profit off athletes’ fame without compensating them. That explains the doomsday pronouncements of NCAA chief legal counsel Donald Remy, who said last week Hausfield’s “scheme to pay a small number of student-athletes threatens college sports as we know it.”

Hausfield and more than a dozen law firms have spent $20 million on the case since 2009, according to ESPN, and have the backing of college basketball legends Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson.  They’ve even set up a players commission, the Former College Athletes Association, for negotiating deals with the NCAA on broadcast rights, memorabilia sales and licensing agreements. The FCAA would be led in part by Kenneth Feinberg, a lawyer best known for handling victims’ compensation funds after the 9/11 and Boston Marathon terrorist attacks.

What does all of this mean for college sports? Most of the problem stems from the haphazard way football and basketball grew in this country — as clubs that began as a fun diversion from university life. The clubs became intertwined with the identities of some of our oldest academic institutions long before college sports was a multibillion-dollar industry, and it’s too late to separate them now. For what it’s worth, many other countries have amateur sports leagues that aren’t associated with centuries-old colleges, where “student-athletes” are just that — athletes who also have the desire to attend college, nothing more.

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