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DeCock: Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit heralds change in college sports

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com
Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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CHAPEL HILL Change is coming to intercollegiate athletics. It’s just a question of when, and how.

While the NCAA pushes incremental reforms that will preserve its position at the top of the pyramid – and at the bottom of the waterfall of money generated by college sports – outsiders wonder why there isn’t more of a push for a complete reassessment of the entire model.

That may not be far away. On June 20, a federal judge in California is scheduled to decide whether to certify former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon’s antitrust suit against the NCAA as a class-action lawsuit representing former and current football and men’s basketball players.

That lawsuit, which accuses the NCAA of profiting from athletes without compensating them, originally by licensing their likenesses in video games before the case was expanded to include television rights and other sources of revenue, was the subject of a panel discussion Friday at the College Sports Research Institute conference at the University of North Carolina’s Friday Center.

It looms as the single greatest threat to the current NCAA set-up, and the best hope for real change that might lead to real reform.

“It is a game-changer,” sports legal analyst Eric McCann said. “It has the potential to change the way college and amateur sports are run. … Keep in mind, the timetable for this is three to five years. It is not overnight.”

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman, who participated via teleconference, was the only member of the panel less certain about the potential impact of the O’Bannon litigation.

“I really don’t think that this lawsuit, if it follows the law, would represent a significant change in how collegiate athletics is conducted,” Perlman said.

Yet Perlman acknowledged that the current system was inequitable and unsuited to be a part of higher education, suggesting that universities tie athletic salaries to academic salaries and divert more athletic revenue toward the university itself.

The panel also included former ACC assistant commissioner and NCAA executive David Thompson, former N.C. Supreme Court justice and current athlete advocate Robert Orr and former North Carolina basketball player Bobby Frasor, now on the basketball staff at Alabama-Birmingham.

If Judge Claudia Wilken certifies the class, the NCAA would likely choose to settle rather than risk a trial, McCann said. Orr noted that though the NCAA often seeks an advantage in legal matters through favorable jurisdictions or stalling, this case has plaintiffs who can afford to wait and experienced antitrust attorneys, as well as a judge who “gets it,” in Orr’s words.

That may give the O’Bannon lawsuit a better chance at provoking real change than anything that’s happened to date.

“I’m waiting for the academic leadership of this country to step up and say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” Orr said. “The system is broken. … We’re going to seriously get back to a system that’s fair, across the board, and acknowledges the academic part of being a student-athlete is really where the emphasis needs to be. I don’t see any leadership at the academic level doing that.”

Should the O’Bannon lawsuit succeed on some level, its impact is anyone’s guess.

Any settlement would likely set aside some of the money earned through television contracts and licensing fees to be given to athletes, a fundamental change in the financial model of college sports which uses unpaid athletes to generate billions of dollars that not only support nonrevenue sports but also seven-figure salaries for coaches, and extravagant facilities.

“This is a very threatening lawsuit to the NCAA,” McCann said.

The pace of real reform within the NCAA has been glacial at best. O’Bannon is coming. Significant change may not be far behind.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @Luke DeCock, 919-829-8947
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