Amateurs in Name Only

An active athlete may join a lawsuit challenging the NCAA system.

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Louisville guard Peyton Siva (3) takes the ball as Michigan guard Trey Burke (3) looks on during the second half of the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game Monday, April 8, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Ed O'Bannon, the former UCLA basketball star who is at the center of a lawsuit challenging the NCAA's insistence that college athletes are "amateurs," may have some new company soon that sports fans will be able to watch plying his or her trade live. A judge last week ruled that a current player can – and should – be added to the suit, and the plaintiffs seem ready to provide one.

"We've been anticipating this for quite some time and there are a number of current athletes who have expressed a desire and an interest in joining the case," said lead attorney Michael Hausfeld, who has two weeks to bring at least one of them forward.

The case – launched by O'Bannon and more than a dozen other former NCAA football and basketball players – is challenging the NCAA and its co-defendants, including the video game company Electronic Arts, saying that the use of players' likenesses in games and television broadcasts without compensation is an antitrust violation. U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken heard arguments last month about whether the case should be allowed to proceed as a class action suit, potentially allowing scores of players to join in.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should NCAA athletes be paid?]

The O'Bannon lawsuit strikes at the very heart of the NCAA's current system, in which players in the major sports at big universities (who are distinctly different from those playing in smaller sports or at smaller schools) aren't allowed to collect any of the myriad economic benefits that their labor creates. Instead, that money gets plowed back into ever-growing athletic department budgets and ever-increasing salaries for athletic directors and coaches, not to mention ever-more glamorous stadiums. (There are just 11 states in the U.S. in which the highest paid public employee is not a football or basketball coach.)

As Brian Frederick wrote in U.S. News, "College athletics are just as much of a big business as professional sports — it's just that the money goes into the pockets of coaches, athletic directors, conference commissioners and sports media executives." This is real money too, as television broadcast revenue from college sports comes in at nearly $2 billion per year. Merchandising revenue hit $4.6 billion last year. So the NCAA can certainly afford to share some of the spoils. In fact, a study by professors Andrew Zimbalist and Allen Sack found that "given any reasonable level of estimated costs accruing from the payment for the use of current and former student-athletes' property rights, it is clear that there are sufficient resources within the NCAA to cover these responsibilities without threatening to disrupt the current financial condition of intercollegiate athletics."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

But instead, the NCAA has clung to its line that providing money to players – or letting them accept endorsement money – would ruin the NCAA's legacy of amateurism, a word that the NCAA defines differently to suit its purposes. Along with age restrictions that prevent young athletes from joining the National Football League or the National Basketball Association right out of high school, the result is a cartel in which promising athletes are essentially forced to play for a college for free, and accept the chance of sustaining a career-ending injury, while only the university benefits financially. (Yes, the players are given scholarships, but the "education" provided to those who believe they are headed to the pros is often a sham.)

Today, Missouri defensive lineman Lucas Vincent tweeted, "I wanna buy the new NCAA game but I also don't want to be poor till September…My likeness is on the game why do I have to pay for it?" Hopefully, having the face of an active player on the lawsuit would drive home, literally straight onto ESPN and major television networks, that NCAA athletes are working in a system that benefits everyone but the athletes providing the product on the field or court. And if it causes a corrupt system to be replaced by something more equitable sooner rather than later, all the better.

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