Exactly where the NCAA's longstanding model of student-athletes is headed is not entirely clear after Friday's ruling that the organization cannot ban payments to its players.
But this latest legal attack on the NCAA's feudal system, while its serfs toil for its benefit in the fields of football and basketball, certainly recalls that there once was a restrictive reserve clause in baseball, eventually decimated by free agency. And there once was a laughable "shamateurism" in Olympic sports that was replaced, rather hastily, by a trust-fund system and then by full professionalism.
"It's analogous," said Northeastern University law professor Roger Abrams, an expert of sports labor law. "We can guess that, if things continue along this path, the NCAA will have the same influence as the AAU does now. Which is nothing."
The ruling in the so-called "O'Bannon case" is a recognition that we may have market value in society and that antitrust laws prohibit actors in society, in this case colleges and universities, from acting together to restrain trade," Abrams said. "This is not a surprising ruling. This was a done deal."
College athletes, federal judge Claudia Wilken determined, deserve a share of the enormous riches they help generate for the NCAA, its schools and conferences. In her 99-page decision, considering a suit brought by former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon and 19 others, Wilken cited a violation of antitrust laws, referencing the "high coaches' salaries and rapidly increasing spending on training facilities at many schools."
Alabama football coach Nick Saban, for instance, earns almost $7 million annually, and athletic budgets in the most competitive schools regularly exceed $60 million a year. Yet the NCAA steadfastly insists it operates as an amateur enterprise in which its players must not be paid, and has suggested it will fight any legal attempts to force change all the way to the Supreme Court.
In fact, the Wilken decision does not mandate having salaried college players, Abrams reminded. "It's a matter of it they wish to sell their name and likeness, then they may be able to obtain [at least] $5,000 a year that they can put in a trust fund."
Wilken said that individual schools could determine trust fund amounts and that the NCAA would be allowed to cap such payments. But there is no doubt that the O'Bannon decision is the latest-and most dramatic-in a spate of recent developments essentially acknowledging the myth of the NCAA's "amateur" brand.
Still in abeyance is the unionization effort by Northwestern University football players. And prominent attorney Jeffrey Kessler has filed a suit on behalf of college athletes that "declares virtually the entire NCAA manual to be an antitrust violation, not just limited to the O'Bannon name and likeness aspect," Abrams said. "Jeffrey is a really smart guy, and he can't be too unhappy about the O'Bannon result."
Also, Thursday's vote by the NCAA's Division I board of directors, granting more autonomy to the richest five conferences, was an obvious admission that money talks -- and that those 65 football powers want the ability to spend whatever it takes to remain competitive.
"All of this," Abrams said, "is a result of the NCAA's incredible economic success. If no one wanted to watch March Madness or if no one wanted a football playoff, the NCAA wouldn't have any troubles. But, whenever there is money on the table . . . "
To Abrams, it is time to "develop a strategic plan, and so far the NCAA plan seems to be: We're going to appeal. As if life has not changed." To the contrary, for his summer sports law course, Abrams said, "I had to teach out of a looseleaf book, because everything is changing.
"I think bits and pieces of the NCAA fable are beginning to wear," he said. "These wonderful young athletes finally are beginning to understand that their chances of pursuing professional careers in football and basketball are very slim, and that their athletic career is right there at the Big House "on college campuses."
The one thing that remains true in this capitalist land is that, as Abrams put it, "If you do something of value, the market should compensate." Judge Wilken agreed.