O'Bannon decision affects area schools but won't alone revolutionize college sports

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Ed O’Bannon is the only player in the last quarter-century to score at least 30 points and grab at least 15 rebounds in the NCAA tournament title game. His 30-and-17 performance in 1995 led UCLA past defending champion Arkansas, giving the Bruins their first banner since John Wooden’s 1975 farewell.

But a federal court ruling this month assured that O’Bannon’s legacy will extend far beyond Los Angeles and basketball.

Indeed, absent a reversal on appeal, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken’s decision in O’Bannon’s suit against the NCAA will reverberate throughout Division I.

Schools belonging to the five richest conferences, including Virginia Tech and Virginia, soon will compensate football and men’s basketball athletes for their names, images and likenesses (NILs). Moreover, without unforeseen windfalls, colleges outside the power five such as Hampton, William and Mary, Norfolk State and perhaps Old Dominion, will be unable to offer similar benefits.

A brief history: In 2009, O’Bannon, properly outraged to see his likeness in a video game — there was no mistaking the bald head, No. 31 jersey and feathery, left-handed jump shot — sued the NCAA, Collegiate Licensing Company and Electronic Arts.

The latter two defendants settled out of court for $40 million, petty cash considering the tens of thousands of college football and basketball players portrayed in video games, without their permission, during the last decade. Conversely, the NCAA fought on.

Wilken ruled for O’Bannon and his fellow plaintiffs, but her narrow scope alone will neither revolutionize major college sports nor bankrupt athletic departments. But with broader cases pending — renowned sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler represents the plaintiffs in one — administrators are, safe to say, anxious.

Wilken did not order Division I schools to pay football and basketball players for NILs. Rather, she said NCAA rules forbidding such compensation are illegal. She capped payments at $5,000 per athlete per year of academic eligibility, to be distributed at college career’s end starting with the 2016 recruiting class.

That’s not as expensive as it sounds. With about 100 scholarship athletes in the two revenue sports, the annual cost for schools offering the maximum would be $500,000, less than 1 percent of major athletic department budgets that range from $60 million to $100 million-plus.

For those lacking power-conference television revenue, however, such a price tag could be untenable. Hampton University, for example, has an annual athletics budget of approximately $10 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education. William and Mary is about $20 million, ODU just north of $30 million, all funded in large measure by student fees.

But NIL compensation isn’t the only new expense headed to your neighborhood athletic department. Pressured by court cases and public opinion, the power conferences soon will add a cost-of-attendance component to scholarships, perhaps for all athletes. Fearing further competitive imbalance, schools such as ODU, VCU and George Mason likely will follow.

Former NCAA compliance officer John Infante, who blogs on all matters NCAA, researched cost-of-attendance allowances for all power-conference schools, and the ACC’s range was $1,596 at Syracuse to $5,536 at Florida State — Virginia Tech was $2,860, Virginia $3,770. Multiply those numbers by approximately 500 athletes, and the costs escalate quickly.

Former Phoebus High and West Virginia University running back Shawne Alston filed a proposed class-action suit against the NCAA and the power conferences in March, alleging anti-trust violations for capping the value of scholarships. Alston seeks exactly what the NCAA soon will permit: money for athletes’ incidental expenses, or, cost of attendance.

“A lot of people who read the lawsuit think it’s about money and all those things,” Alston told the Daily Press’ Dave Johnson in April, “but it’s not. It’s about what is right and wrong.”

Agreed. While there’s no questioning the value athletes receive from free tuition, coaching and, in many cases, auditions for the pros, there’s also no denying the fairness in making sure they can afford trips home.

Indeed, Alston said he took out a loan of $5,500 while competing at WVU his final season — as a graduate student, he was no longer eligible for a federal, need-based Pell Grant — to make ends meet.

But what most concerns college sports officials is a similar anti-trust suit brought by Clemson defensive back Martin Jenkins and others against the NCAA and the power conferences. Kessler represents Jenkins, and though this case has been consolidated with Alston’s, Kessler’s aim — essentially an open market for college athletes — is far more radical.

That’s too chaotic for my tastes, cheapens education — whether or not any student graduates, the college experience is invaluable — and threatens non-revenue sports programs, which rely on football and men’s basketball for funding.

The Kessler case “attacks the fundamentals of the collegiate model, the amateur model,” ACC commissioner John Swofford told me. “I think the collegiate model is one worth savoring, and retaining, with adjustments. There’s no question in my mind that there needs to be changes made, and an awful lot of time and energy is being spent on that. … But I don’t think the model itself needs to be blown up.”

David Teel
can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.
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