O'Bannon Fallout

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

What are the potential implications for UConn once the O'Bannon case is over?

It's the summer, which means some vacation time, weekend trips to the beach, baseball, and...not a whole lotta things to talk about in college sports.

I mean, if you're a fan of some SEC team, I guess there is never an offseason when it comes to college athletics, especially football, but up here in the Northeast it's a bit different. I know on my end I start really getting back into the Husky swing of things sometime in mid-August, right before the first football games kick off.

But there's one story to which all of us should be paying close attention.

Former UCLA standout basketball player Ed O'Bannon is suing the NCAA for...a lot.

His complaint? The NCAA, along with EA Sports (video game manufacturer) profited from his likeness and name for years and he never saw a dime come his way. O'Bannon has attracted several former college athletes to join with him in the suit and, recently, some current athletes have added their name to it as well. In fact, just this week it was announced that six current football players will be a part of the proceedings.

From what I understand, the suit only deals with money owed. Technically, it shouldn't affect future money and current athletes. Technically.

However, it's pretty obvious that, if the court rules these former players are owed money for their likeness and names being distributed through everything from video games to game-day programs, the next logical step is to compensate those who are currently playing. If it wasn't right to make money off Ed O'Bannon's name in the mid-1990s, why would it be okay to do the same with Shabazz Napier now, right?

Depending on who you read, the final decision on this case will either be a blip on the radar when it comes to major college sports or a complete sea change. Either way, this has suddenly become much more important to a school like UConn.

Why?

While money is a major factor in deciding the haves and have nots in college sports now, it would become the ultimate determinant if colleges are required to pay players.

Because of college realignment, UConn finds itself in the American Athletic Conference, not the Big East. We've spent a lot of time talking about what that means in terms of national recognition, strength of schedule, and opportunities to play in big games for big prizes (national championships). What's not up for debate, however, is that being a part of the American is not exactly lucrative at this point. If it were, well, the American wouldn't even exist and the Big East never would have broken apart.

All of this shuffling has been driven by the all-mighty dollar, but it's hard to quantify exactly how much that bottom line actually affects the product on the field/court. As Mac pointed out on this blog a while back, lining the pockets of university athletic departments with millions is obviously a good thing for the university as a whole, but does it guarantee athletic success? The short and obvious answer is “no.”

If you're UConn making a measly $2 million off television revenue per year, I submit you have a much better shot at being nationally relevant than, say, Wake Forrest, even though Wake is making $18 million per year off TV money. That revenue sure makes it easier to buy shinier and fancier facilities, but UConn's reputation for producing professional-quality athletes will trump that every time when it comes to recruiting.

Plus, as has been proven time and again, college sports is really all about the coaches. If you have the right guy leading your program, all the other stuff almost doesn't matter. You'll find success.

That stops being true once players are paid, however.

Think about it: if we ultimately get to the point where these athletes are compensated almost as if they are professionals, then they'd be stupid not to go to the schools making the most money. Why would you come to UConn when you could go to a second-tier SEC school and make a lot more cash in the process? Remember, many of these kids are coming from impoverished backgrounds. Saying no to more dough—money that could help a family—is going to be hard, even if it means a little less playing time or less chance to distinguish oneself as the “best” on a particular team.

Even assuming the NCAA would establish what amounts to a cap in paying players, setting up a system where one school can't pay its kids five times what another smaller school can, the money still becomes a huge factor. If you're Alabama, you'll have a much easier time absorbing the new “payroll” needed for your sports than UConn, even if both schools are spending the same amount overall. For Bama, it will be a drop in the bucket, considering all their SEC-driven revenue. For UConn, with little hope of matching that kind of money through the American, it could potentially eat up much of their athletic department budget.

Granted, we are a long, long, long way from that and, quite honestly, it's hard to even conceive of something so earth shattering taking place. If it did, a myriad of issues would have to be worked out. Forget about how much, the biggest question would be who gets paid. For instance, does a school only have to pay players participating in revenue-generating sports or do all athletes get a share (considering our PC world, it's hard to imagine people being okay with the football players making a few grand a year, but the tennis team getting nothing)? Also, would each player be paid exactly the same? Would it be fair for, say, Ryan Boatright and Niels Giffey to make the same amount, even though Boatright is clearly a more popular, important star on the team generating interest and dollars?

And there's also the question of whether paying college athletes is right.

Personally, I sympathize with O'Bannon and the others that brought this lawsuit. The NCAA and these schools do run a racket, squeezing these kids for virtually everything they have and offering little in return. And while I value education as much as anyone, saying that a scholarship, and free room and board is enough just doesn't hold water. Put yourself in the players' shoes: if you were a part of an industry that made billions of dollars per year, would you be content knowing that the only “perk” you got out of the whole thing was NOT having to pay for the privilege of making that money for the NCAA and university? Attending college for free is simply the buy-in. If I were a part of this, I'd want something more as well.

Personally, I don't think I'd go as far as outright paying these players a wage, but I'd essentially throw out the NCAA rule book. Why shouldn't a kid be able to profit on his likeness? If an agent wants to enter into a business deal with a player, paying him money and offering him gifts before becoming a professional, why is anyone allowed to say “no” to that? If, when you were going to college, someone came up to you and said “hey, we think you're going to be a star in this industry, and we want you to come and work for us, so we'll pay you now on the condition you work for us after you graduate,” would you have said “take a hike”? Of course not. You'd be thrilled, and your university would have used your story as a marketing tool for other students considering the same field.

Yet, in college sports that scenario right there gets kids kicked out of school and sanctions filed against the program.

But that's what I would do. The question is, what will the law do, and what will it mean to UConn?

If O'Bannon loses, it's business as usual. If O'Bannon wins, the American's paltry television contract and prospects for future revenue become a knife in the side of the Huskies.

It's still difficult for me to believe any court or judge is going to blow this whole multi-billion dollar industry up, forcing the powers that be to put it back together with a completely different formula, but stranger things have happened.

Then, UConn might really be in trouble.

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