by Dave Zirin / @EdgeOfSports
Muhammad Ali asked the world, “What’s my name, fool?” Marlo Stanfield of The Wire said, “My name is my name!” Even Walter White, Breaking Bad’s chemistry teacher turned crystal-meth maker, said, “Say my name” in an effort to demand respect.
The idea that our name is the most precious representation of who we are is as primal as anything in U.S. culture. That’s what makes the latest in what is known popularly as “The O’Bannon lawsuit” strike an emotional chord with supporters of NCAA athletes.
For those who don’t know, Ed O’Bannon, the UCLA All-American who was Most Outstanding Player of the 1995 NCAA Tournament, has been suing the NCAA for unlawful use of his likeness. The lawsuit has picked up steam as two of the most respected people in hoops history, Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell, joined in addition to a crew of current and former NCAA athletes.
Already the lawsuit has had serious repercussions. The NCAA has officially dropped its partnership with EA Sports, the video game company where O’Bannon first saw his image used. In addition, O’Bannon’s cause garnered even more attention in recent months as Heisman winner Johnny Manziel faced suspension for receiving funds for his autograph. ESPN’s Jay Bilas, amidst the Manziel frenzy, humiliated the NCAA by tweeting a series of links showing the supposed non-profit NCAA selling Manziel jerseys, as well as shirts with the number of now-pro NBA player Nerlens Noel. As NCAA president Mark Emmert admitted after Bilas’ flurry of tweets, “I certainly understand how people can see that as hypocritical.”
O’Bannon’s lawsuit is so dangerous because it strikes at the heart of this hypocrisy, where college athletes produce billions of dollars but forfeit the rights to their own names.
Patrick Hruby of Sports on Earth has been covering the O’Bannon trial from its beginning. Hruby said to me, “The entire concept of amateurism is a con, with no grounding in ethics, economics or history—the ancient Greeks would have laughed at the notion that athletes shouldn’t be allowed to cash in on their talents. The O’Bannon case is critical not only because it threatens to blow up amateurism’s shaky legal foundations, but also because it already has exposed the college sports economy for the racket it is.”
Despite public opinion, logic and basic fairness lining up against it, the NCAA is digging in. Instead of settling their suit with O’Bannon, they are trying to get it dismissed. Their argument is that this hard line is tough but necessary or the whole system implodes. Donald Remy, NCAA’s VP for legal affairs, argues the following:
“The plaintiffs’ lawyers in the likeness case now want to make this about professionalizing a few current student-athletes to the detriment of all others. Their scheme to pay a small number of student-athletes threatens college sports as we know it. In particular, we would lose the very real opportunity for at least 96 percent of NCAA male and female student-athletes who do not compete in Division I men’s basketball or FBS football to play a sport and get an education, as they do today.”
This argument doesn’t address why the aforementioned Emmert makes over $2 million a year in his role as a defender of “amateurism.” It doesn’t examine how he is able to have 14 vice presidents, each of whom make over $400,000 a year. It certainly doesn’t look at how coaches’ salaries have exploded even though over 90 percent of Athletic Departments lose money. In other words, the money is there to both compensate athletes for their likenesses and subsidize amateur athletics in non-revenue producing sports.
The question is whether a corporate entity can take control of someone’s very likeness and profit without compensating those involved. We all have a stake in an O’Bannon win. After all, your name is your name.