Two recent major developments may revolutionize major college sports, potentially to the benefit of long-exploited college athletes. It's about time.
On August 7 the National Collegiate Athletic Association decreed that the five major conferences — the University of Maryland's former and new conferences, the ACC and the Big Ten; plus the Big 12, PAC-12 and the SEC — shall have greater autonomy to develop policies that specifically meet their needs. Experts believe the five conferences' 65 member universities could, among other changes, begin to pay annual stipends for student-athletes and cover their tuition and other scholastic costs after their eligibility has expired.
The very next day a federal judge ruled in O'Bannon v. NCAA that the NCAA violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act by profiting from the images of collegiate athletes without compensating them. Five years after the case was initially filed by the lead plaintiff, former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon, the judge rejected the NCAA's claim that it could not pay amateur athletes.
Legal experts further believe that because the O'Bannon ruling vacates the NCAA's long-cherished amateurism exception, a series of follow-up rulings may follow, including the resolution of a key case (Jenkins v. NCAA) that threatens to upend the NCAA's current economic model. "All of the defenses about amateurism and competitive balance the NCAA had been boasting about for years, if not decades, have been washed away in this incredibly thorough [O'Bannon] opinion," Rutgers law professor and anti-trust expert Michael Carrier told CBS Sports. "There is lots of litigation going on and this [ruling] is something plaintiffs can use in every case now."
So the NCAA's self-righteous and self-serving glorification of student-athletes as unpaid amateurs has finally begun to be dismantled. As a former freelance sportswriter during my graduate school days, I glimpsed the negative effects of the NCAA's longstanding policies.
In fact, upon hearing of these two new rulings I immediately thought of two Division I football offensive linemen from separate schools I once knew — one I'll call "Joe," the other I'll call "Jim."
Joe was putting his considerable size to one of its few economically viable, non-football employment uses once his playing career ended: as a bouncer. Joe told me that when he was on the team he had access to whatever medical, fitness or therapeutic services he wanted. But once his eligibility ended, ongoing medical problems in his legs, knees and back were his financial responsibility.
I met Jim when he was a player, then ran into him at a home game two years after he graduated. He was so much thinner I hardly recognized him. Clearly he had taken steroids or other muscle builders while in school. While chatting with him, he essentially admitted his "diet" was far different now that his playing days were over.
Although other professional or collegiate sports in which men and women participate involve risk of injury, football is particularly violent. Even with recent advances in equipment safety and newly protective on-field rules, the risks of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — permanent brain damage — are high. As tragically recounted in media stories about the downward spiral that took the lives of former NFL players Mike Webster and Junior Seau, CTE can lead former athletes to become aggressive, anti-social and even suicidal.
In effect, many student-athletes put their bodies, if not their lives, at risk to provide entertainment that is televised and otherwise marketed for profit, yet they often share in little to none of the receipts.
Sure, those student-athletes are compensated in the form of tuition, room and board; a small fraction of them are talented and fortunate enough to become highly-paid professional athletes. And yes, they are adults who voluntary sign an education-for-play contract when they accept their athletic scholarships.
But hopefully these two rulings will alter the nature and specifics of that implicit contract so that these young athletes, who collectively generate millions of dollars for their universities and billions of dollars in media contract revenues for the NCAA, will be better compensated for the physical and increasingly mental hazards they may suffer during their playing days and beyond.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is email@example.com. Twitter: @schaller67.To respond to this commentary, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and contact information.