College sports as we know them are about to change. 

Better late than never.

 With the arguments in the O’Bannon v. NCAA case now closed, a federal court in California will have the task of making sense of how college sports and commerce intersect.  The plaintiffs in the case, led by former UCLA basketball star and member of the 1995 national championship team Ed O’Bannon, filed a class action suit on behalf of all current and former NCAA student-athletes alleging that the NCAA violated antitrust laws with their licensing agreements.  The plaintiffs claim that they have a right to profits made off of television and video games that use their likenesses.  The NCAA is no less determined to give up their idea of amateurism. 

When the court makes its decision, possibly as soon as August, the landscape of college athletics may be changed forever.

Let me start off by saying that I don’t think paying college players is the answer.  The issue is way too nuanced.  There simply isn’t an easy fix. 

The issue here is that the athletes, by any and every measure, are roundly exploited.  In their closing arguments, the lawyers for the plaintiffs called the NCAA a “cartel”, which is one of the more apt descriptions you can place on an organization that traffics and profits off of largely powerless athletes.  Moreover, how is not being able to profit off of your own likeness fair?  Any other 18 year old kid can go out and make money at a job. 

Now here is where some of you will say, “Why can’t these athletes go out and get a job to supplement their income?”  There’s no time.  Coaching staffs demand complete and total immersion into the program.  Go to class in the morning, then practice, film, lifting weights, meetings, and then more practice.  By now, it’s probably 7 or 8 at night, so go home, do your homework, study, write a paper, and then tomorrow, get up and do it all again.  Oh, and if you don’t buy into the demands of the coach? See you later, you’re off the team and your scholarship is gone.  At least then, the player would have time to get a job.  I’m not naïve.  I know that some of the big time college athletes get off easy academically, as the recent scandal at the University of North Carolina proves.  But, the larger point is that the athletes are powerless to fight back against oppressive administrations. 

Another argument is that the full ride scholarship provided to athletes is compensation enough.  That the run of the mill college student would be eternally grateful for such an opportunity, so these athletes should just shut up and be thankful.  But, there’s another key difference here:  the run of the mill college student isn’t bringing in billions of dollars in revenue for the university.  The NCAA regularly produces around $11 billion in revenue during a season.  And the players touch NONE of it.  It all goes to the universities and to the NCAA.  So, it’s easy to see why they want to keep the status quo.

It’s a weird dichotomy.  I love college sports; I prefer them even to the pros.  The pageantry and passion is second to none.  But, at the same time, I find the NCAA reprehensible.  You see the stories and hear the players talk about how they’re grateful for the opportunity afforded to them by their position, yet they still have to go to bed hungry some nights because they just don’t have the money for food. 

The ironic thing about all of this is that I don’t think things will change very much, at least not in terms of viewership.  I know that I personally am still going to watch every snap of college football this fall, as will a large portion of the country.  However, if the court decides that the athletes playing in the games this fall are to be more fairly compensated for their labor, I know that I’ll feel a little better about it.