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Schwartz: The NCAA Gets Desperate

May 19, 2016

Written by David Schwartz

Hawkeye Nation

The NCAA faces many challenges, but its greatest – the continuing debate over whether and how to pay athletes – refuses to go away.

This past week the NCAA asked the Supreme Court of the United States to hear what’s become known as “The O’Bannon Case.” This was the case originally filed in 2009 by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon. It challenges the NCAA’s ability to use former college athletes for commercial gain without proper compensation of the athlete.

A 20-second explanation: O’Bannon, who last played college ball in 1995, was playing an NCAA-sanctioned basketball video game when he saw a likeness of himself. He’s not a college athlete anymore. He wants to get paid. But if he gets paid, every former athlete the NCAA profits from also gets paid. In 2014 a judge ruled for O’Bannon. In 2015 an appellate court ruled mostly for the NCAA but agreed that the NCAA is violating anti-trust laws. That’s the part the NCAA hopes the Supreme Court – if it hears the case – will scrub.

Which brings us back to now.

At some point in the near or distant future, some of the money you spend on a season-end DVD of Hawkeye football highlights will go to Desmond King, C.J. Beathard and their teammates, and not just to the University of Iowa, Big Ten and NCAA.

That would be a fair outcome. We live in a capitalist society. It’s anti-capitalistic to prevent someone from making money on their own image, which the NCAA currently forbids its athletes to do.

This issue isn’t about paying players. That’s a separate debate summarized by the argument of “Hey, athletes are earning millions for the University of Iowa and deserve to get paid” versus “Hey, athletes are already getting paid six figures in the form of college tuition, room and board.”

The O’Bannon case is about one’s own image and the ability to A) protect it, and B) profit from it. You don’t think the University of Iowa and other NCAA schools should pay athletes? Fine. But at least let the athlete earn money by filming a commercial or signing autographs for a collectibles dealer.

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Consider this hypothetical conversation …

University: Mike, you’ve been a great player for us. You’re going to start next year.

Mike: Great! Can you pay me?

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University: No. The NCAA won’t let us pay you.

Mike: OK, I understand. But I can still do a meet-and-greet at the mall this weekend, right? They’re paying me 500 bucks to take pictures with fans for a couple of hours.

University: No. The NCAA won’t let you make money off your own name.

Mike: Oh, OK. Dang. (Pause.) Hey, what’s that behind you?

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University: That? Oh, that’s a jersey with your number on it. We’ve got pre-orders for 10,000 units. And a game program with your picture on it. And a DVD that features you. And by the way, we need you to show up at an I-Club event next weekend to shake hands with some big donors. We need the money.

The three most likely outcomes of the NCAA’s request of the Supreme Court are 1) SCOTUS declines to hear it, and the NCAA remains susceptible to future related lawsuits, 2) SCOTUS agrees to hear it and fully reverses the 2014 decision, which is what the NCAA wants, or 3) SCOTUS agrees to hear it and dismantles the phony notion of amateurism even more than the lower courts already have.

Two outcomes are bad for the NCAA. Only one is good. The odds are not in the NCAA’s favor, but when your money supply is threatened, sometimes you have to say a prayer and throw a Hail Mary.

* Talk with David Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz

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