clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Yes, college athletes get a lot of stuff. And in court, that doesn't matter.

The issue in the massive O'Bannon college sports trial isn't what players get or don't get. It's what the NCAA does with all its money.

Major college football players are treated reasonably well. But O'Bannon's about television revenue.
Major college football players are treated reasonably well. But O'Bannon's about television revenue.

The most common argument from fans and analysts who don't want to see athletes get paid is that the players already get a lot of benefits. That includes a free education, academic support, free travel, television exposure, food, housing, notoriety, and so on.

During the trial that began Monday, NCAA lawyers got plaintiff and former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon to admit during testimony that the benefits he got from being an athlete were pretty darn cool.

This will continue to be brought up in the NCAA's argument. College athletes already have a pretty sweet deal, so why should we have to give them more? It's a good PR move, since it makes the O'Bannon plaintiffs sound greedy. But as far as the trial goes, it doesn't make a difference.

The court is not interested in the philosophical debate over whether athletes are being greedy. Rather, the court is interested in finding out whether the college athletics market is unfairly restricted by amateurism — and whether schools really do want to pay athletes more than they can — at a cost to the athletes, as was demonstrated by the plaintiffs' economic witness, Roger Noll.

On the surface are two basic issues being discussed at the trial:

  • Does the NCAA owe the players anything?
  • Does the NCAA need to restrict the market?

For the NCAA to keep its model as-is, it needs to prevail on both issues.

As crazy as it might sound, the NCAA might be able to prevail on the first point. The O'Bannon plaintiffs might not be able to prove that athletes are responsible for some of the television money that is brought in, because of how the contracts are set up.

Hey, we finally joined Facebook!

That's still not a smoking gun for the NCAA, since judges are allowed to improvise using common sense. And it's clear that the NCAA is hoping Judge Claudia Wilken refuses to look at this portion of the case outside of the very narrow scope of the contracts.

But here's the NCAA's problem: owing athletes money from television revenue is only half the case. The other half — the ability for athletes to market themselves and for schools to offer whatever kinds of compensation they want  — is going to be much more difficult for the league to fight.

In order to win that point, the NCAA needs to show that its rules contribute to the integration of athletics and education and help maintain competitive balance. It also has to show that there really is no market for paying players more than a value of a scholarships. Noll's points touched on all of these issues:

In one respect, the anti-O'Bannon crowd may end up being right. The NCAA might not owe college athletes anything more than they're already given. There's a whole lot more schools should do, and a lot more that many of them are trying to do, but players already get a lot of benefits. And they keep signing up en masse for the same deal every year.

But the key to O'Bannon remains the same. Are the market restrictions against paying players needed to maintain the collegiate athletics system? The judge will decide.