Thursday, May 5, 2011

These stories are related...

... so I'll just post excerpts from both. First, from SportsBusiness Daily:
A U.S. District Court in California earlier this week dismissed a complaint against EA Sports in the Ed O'Bannon licensing case. The former UCLA star sued EA Sports, the NCAA and the Collegiate Licensing Company in '09 on the grounds they were using his image and likeness without his consent, and the suit later grew into a class action involving Basketball HOFer Oscar Robertson among several others.
Judge Claudia Wilken for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed the complaint against EA Sports, ruling, "This purported conspiracy involves Defendants' concerted action to require all current student-athletes to sign forms each year that purport to require each of them to relinquish all rights in perpetuity for use of their images, likenesses and/or names and to deny compensation 'through restrictions in the NCAA Bylaws.' The Consolidated Amended Complaint, however, does not contain any allegations to suggest that EA agreed to participate in this conspiracy."
For what it's worth, the judge did not grant similar motions from the NCAA to dismiss claims, so those cases are still pending. For now, it's just EA that gets a pass on the exploitation of athletes.

The related article is from the Los Angeles Times:
The soon-to-be Pacific 12 Conference has the richest television deal in college history. And that's no accident. 
Rights fees for televised sports keep climbing, even in a challenging economy. Proof came Wednesday as Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott confirmed a new 12-year deal with Fox and ESPN that is estimated to be worth $3 billion. 
Randy Freer, Fox Sports Networks president, said televised sports is getting to be the equal of entertainment programming. 
"I think we're all making a bet on the future where we believe college sports and sports in general is one of the leading lights of generating large audiences," he said.
Well, Randy, I think you're really all making a bet that college players will continue to allow their services to be exploited for BILLIONS OF DOLLARS simply because professional leagues are hiding behind anti-trust exemptions that force athletes to play for college teams without just compensation.

I've personally come a long way on this issue in the past few years. It used to be that I told the players to stop whining, that they were getting a (very valuable) college education for free, and that was compensation enough for their services. But two recent developments have challenged my original position, and I therefore no longer think that view applies.

One development is simply the explosion in revenues, and the fact that schools are now asking their athletes to do more and more to satisfy the networks who own their television rights. Thursday night football games, Tuesday night games, basketball "marathons", and more have continued to take students out of the classroom with increasing frequency, making it incredibly clear how low a priority the athletes' education actually is at these institutions. When students are never actually in the classroom, it's hard to argue that the "education" they're receiving actually has any value at all--they're there to play their sport, plain and simple.

But the second--and more important--development that has changed my mind is the forced nature of these players' efforts. Both the NBA and NFL have used technicalities within anti-trust exemptions to essentially require that athletes attend college before turning pro--the NFL's exemption was challenged multiple times, to no avail. College sports, then, are nothing but a forced apprenticeship, a way for the professional leagues to "protect their product" while the athletes have no choice but to spend years of their lives providing free labor to what has become a multi-billion dollar business. That's pretty close to slavery, and it simply wouldn't be allowed in any other industry.

Labor laws are extremely strict with regard to unpaid internships for most companies (banks, retailers, manufacturing companies, etc.), but the NCAA is able to exploit a strange loophole by claiming that the athletes are "students" (for what it's worth, banks also frequently take advantage of a labor law loophole by providing classroom credit for their unpaid internships, but that's another issue entirely).

Either way, whether or not the athletes actually WANT their college education (many of them have little interest in the classroom, and that should be their prerogative), it's the only compensation they're allowed to receive during those years. This, while ESPN, EA, Nike, Under Armour, the NCAA, and their schools and conferences (oh, not to mention their coaches, who are not pimps, as Nick Saban has so kindly reminded us) profit handsomely.

The higher these dollar amounts climb, the harder it becomes to justify the college sports system as it's currently set up. A breaking point is coming, and it won't be pretty when it does come. Just don't be surprised when dozens more incidents like these ones hit your newspapers--it's inevitable, and frankly justifiable given the current environment.

If I had to guess, the first thing to give way will be the leagues' ability to prevent players from bypassing the college game. If the NCAA won't step up, the courts eventually will. But it might take some time, and it will probably take a coordinated legal effort on the part of the players. We'll see what shakes out. Enjoy the gravy train while it lasts, Pac-12.

[SportsBusiness Daily]
[Los Angeles Times]

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