The news from the world of amateur athletics over the last month could be summed up by saying, “The NCAA is dead! Long live the NCAA!” Let me explain: As anyone with the ability to even spell “law school” predicted, the NCAA officially lost its case against former UCLA All-American and 1995 Tournament Most Outstanding Player Ed O’Bannon, and they can no longer use the likenesses of players without providing some form of compensation. As Judge Claudia Wilken stated, starting in the 2016-17 season, NCAA President Mark Emmert and his sprawling bureaucracy will actually have to pay players if they are going to try and turn a buck off of their name.
President Emmert warned the world repeatedly over the last several years that if O’Bannon emerged triumphant, it would signal “the end of the NCAA.” For many of us, this end could not come soon enough. The idea that the NCAA could create a constitution-free zone where so-called student-athletes were absent of not only adequate compensation but basic due process, needed to be smacked down with extreme prejudice. But not so fast. No one could ever say that the NCAA was not prepared for this day. These are master bureaucrats with many arrows of defense in their Swoosh-branded quivers. It has long been known that Emmert has had at his disposal a legal rainy day fund, and his organization had prepared itself for this deluge. Instead of trying to figure out a more fair way to operate college athletics, the NCAA is appealing the O’Bannon decision.
NCAA attorney Donald Remy—who, just to be clear, is paid by the NCAA unlike the athletes themselves—issued the following statement:
“We are appealing the Court’s decision because we do not believe the NCAA has violated the antitrust laws. In its decision, the Court acknowledged that changes to the rules that govern college athletics would be better achieved outside the courtroom, and the NCAA continues to believe that the Association and its members are best positioned to evolve its rules and processes to better serve student-athletes. The reform conversation began long before this lawsuit and the changes announced earlier this month are evidence of the NCAA continually working to improve the student-athlete experience.”
What are the “changes announced earlier this month” that Remy is referencing? This was the decision by the NCAA to allow 65 teams from the so-called Big 5 power conferences—the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC, plus Notre Dame—the right to pay their players up to $5,000 a semester. These schools, and these schools alone, can also allow contact between agents and players.
This counterstrike by Emmert is not an example of the “NCAA continually working to improve the student-athlete experience,” but a direct response to both the inevitability of Ed O’Bannon winning his lawsuit as well as the highly publicized efforts of the Northwestern football team to unionize. It is nothing less than Emmert’s last, best attempt to keep the NCAA alive.
While Coach K makes $9.7 million per year, Shabazz Napier, the 2014 NCAA Tournament MOP, spoke publicly about going to bed hungry at night. The power and publicity of Napier’s statement demonstrated that not only will the NCAA lose every legal and union battle in the foreseeable future but they are losing the public relations battle as well. By attempting to buy off the players at the top conferences, and effectively creating a two-tier system, they are actually conceding every point that their critics make.
Players are campus employees and now the best players at the best schools will be paid. But one would forgive the next generation’s Shabazz Napiers for asking the question: “If I deserve $5,000, then why not $10,000? Why not $20,000?” If the next generation’s Johnny Manziel is making $5,000 but signs one-thousand autographs for the school that are auctioned at $1,000 a piece, he will still ask, like Ed O’Bannon, Oscar Robertson and the great Bill Russell have asked, Why does he not still control his own name? By rolling out piddling reforms, the NCAA thinks that they have saved the golden goose. In reality, their goose has never been more cooked.