Source: Paul M. Barrett/BloombergBusinessWeek
As we now wait a month or two for U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken to rule on a closely watched antitrust lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association, it’s an apt moment to rethink what’s going on with the $16 billion-a-year college sports industry.
NCAA Inc. is under legal assault. Its moneymaking participants—universities, sports conferences, television networks, corporate sponsors, merchandise manufacturers, and countless individuals ranging from highly-paid coaches to anonymous staff tutors charged with keeping athletes academically eligible—face a courtroom challenge from Division 1 football and basketball players. The challenge boils down to this: All of you make a living—in some cases, a very lucrative living—from the sports-and-entertainment extravaganzas that big-time college football and basketball have become. We, the athletes, without whom the show cannot go on, want a share of the proceeds, or at least better treatment.
The NCAA’s response, as expressed in the O’Bannon case pending before Judge Wilken in federal court in Oakland, Calif., has two main elements. First, college athletes do receive something of value in exchange for their services: the scholarships that cover tuition, room, and board, as well as the intangible experience of being Big Men on Campus. (This fight concerns male athletes in the two sports that generate those billions of dollars in revenue, football and basketball). Second, the NCAA contends that if college sports surrendered the ideal that student athletes are “amateurs,” the whole enterprise would collapse, if for no other reason than alumni and other fans don’t want to watch greedy professionals fight, fight, fight for alma mater.
It’s tempting to view this as a widening all-out war in which one side—the players or the NCAA and its business partners—will win and the other will lose. It’s also tempting to get caught up in the fine points of antitrust and labor law.
Another, more illuminating perspective would emphasize that one way or another big changes are coming to the college sports business. In this sense, the legal hostilities aren’t so much a fight over justice and “amateurism,” whatever the latter concept means in the thoroughly commercialized world of Division 1 sports, as they are a cumbersome, expensive form of negotiation over the nature and extent of changes that are definitely coming.
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