Is Mark Emmert really the villain in the O'Bannon case?

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

The NCAA president doesn't want players to receive a piece of broadcast revenue, but he's not the responsible party for the commercial exploitation of athletes.

The O'Bannon plaintiffs spent the better part of their cross-examination of NCAA president Mark Emmert showing the hypocrisy of college sports. They did this by presenting evidence of rampant commercialism in the industry. Attorney Bill Isaacson showed Emmert photos of Wisconsin players in front of Vizio ads, Vanderbilt players in front of a Dollar General-sponsored school banner, and even a Jameis Winston trading card on Florida State's online store.

The goal was to show that athletes are exploited by their schools for commercial gain, even though the NCAA says its rules are in place to protect athletes from commercialism. Emmert didn't disagree, describing the commercial exploits as "inappropriate" on numerous occasions. In doing so, he deflected blame from himself to the schools.

That response drew a lot of ire from people who are sick of the NCAA's antics. And it's not going to help the NCAA legally. Even if Emmert and the NCAA are powerless — Penn State fans would beg to differ — the schools are probably still breaking antitrust law by acting as a cartel.

However, Emmert's quotes and his actions throughout his tenure suggest he's not to blame for the financial exploitation of athletes. That blame might lie with the universities.

Like the universities, Emmert is staunchly against paying athletes. But unlike the universities, he seems to be against the extent to which athletes are used to promote their schools. There are really three sides in the pay-for-play debate:

  • The conferences and universities, who want to be able to continue to bring in millions upon millions of dollars per year while still not paying athletes.
  • The O'Bannon plaintiffs (and many fans and analysts), who don't mind college sports being a commercial industry, but think some of the money should go to the athletes.
  • The academics (and many fans and analysts), possibly including Emmert, who don't want athletes to be paid but also don't want college sports to be nearly as commercialized as they are.

You might think Emmert belongs in the first group, and given the NCAA's MARCH MADNESS PRESENTED BY COKE ZERO ads everywhere, that's a fair opinion. However, there is evidence that Emmert has made some progress in taking some of the commercialism that he can control out of the NCAA.

This isn't to say that Emmert's approach is the right one. Declining to take advantage of the market and giving up billions of dollars all in the name of not paying athletes seems ridiculous. And given how far commercialism has already infiltrated college sports, it's far more likely the athletes end up getting a cut than the industry just disappears.

But regardless of how misguided his vision of college sports might be, Emmert isn't the one claiming this extent of commercialism is necessary even without paying players. That would be the college presidents and athletic directors, like South Carolina's Harris Pastides, who misled a federal judge earlier this week in order to keep all of the money within the system while still building the industry.

Emmert is an easy target, but if you're looking for a villain, it might be better to look at your alma mater instead.

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