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Amateurism's Dying Hour

A judge recently ruled players should be paid for having their likenesses used in video games.
EA Sports
A judge recently ruled players should be paid for having their likenesses used in video games.

There have been two recent major developments regarding big-time college athletics. While both are tremendously significant, the conclusions in both cases were foreshadowed and there don't appear to be any devils in the details.

The Big Satan — amateurism — took the hardest hit. And understand, most important of all: This is only the beginning. Many more changes in the NCAA and its anachronistic rules lie ahead.

In what has been known as the O'Bannon case, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that the NCAA was in violation of antitrust law in using the images of players in video games without compensating them. Since payment must come in the form of postgraduate trust funds, this only makes college amateurs "a little bit pregnant," professionally. But the ruling baldly acknowledges that you cannot withhold payment from entertainers just because they're students. The jig is up.

Meanwhile, the NCAA has permitted the five major, power conferences — the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Pac-12, the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the very, very, very big Southeastern Conference — to henceforth operate under more liberal rules than other Division I schools. Yes, some animals are more equal than others.

These new rights for the Power Five conferences pretty much only acknowledge reality. The big-timers maintain that they're doing it all for their dear student-athletes, when, in fact, they're acting primarily in their own self-interest. They should've caught on a long time ago that the unfair amateur system couldn't hold up — not while coaches were making millions and TV was handing out billions — and then thrown their players a bone, which is what they're finally doing now. But thank you, it's too late.

On the near horizon looms an even broader antitrust case for Judge Wilken, where not only the NCAA but the power conferences specifically are defendants. It's being argued for the plaintiffs — both football and basketball players — by a superb sports and labor lawyer named Jeffrey Kessler. The case maintains that athletes are just like other students and must be compensated commensurately. Now, if the judge has already ruled that collegians must be paid for their images, doesn't it follow that they also should share television money and box office receipts for their live performances?

On the actual athletic front, football shouldn't be affected. The SEC and its four littler big pigs dominate every year anyway. However, basketball's March Madness may be diminished. After all, the current champion, UConn, is not in one of the power conferences. Can it and other basketball schools still fairly compete? There go all the popular Cinderellas in your brackets. Goodbye, Butler. Toot-a-loo, Florida Gulf Coast.

But, finally: None of this has anything whatsoever to do with improving education. The concept of the student athlete as a real student is still a joke. But at least now the erstwhile amateurs will have some walking-around money.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Deford died on Sunday, May 28, at his home in Florida. Remembrances of Frank's life and work can be found in All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and on NPR.org.

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