Colleges and cash: A judge’s NCAA ruling is justified but problematic

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Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the obvious. In a case that is likely to change the nature of college sports — and not for the better — it took U.S. District Judge Claudia Ann Wilken of the Northern District of California to see the National Collegiate Athletic Association for what it really is.

The NCAA believes it is the saintly defender of the amateur sports ethic and the last champion of the student-athlete. The reality, at least at the Division I level, is not so uplifting.

Top college sports are a big business, raking in millions of dollars primarily from football and basketball according to an extraordinary business plan: The athletes who play the game — while they may have scholarships — are not paid for their services.

As for the education which is supposed to be the point of the exercise, it is often an after-thought. A recent analysis by the Post-Gazette found that athletes in Top 25 football and basketball programs were often clustered in identical, less-rigorous majors, no matter what their own educational preferences.

So much for the notion of the student-athlete, who is too often primarily an athlete with some study thrown in for appearances’ sake. The trouble with that model lately has been that players treated as unpaid employees want to be paid. The pressure to do so has been coming on several fronts.

In an Aug. 8 decision, Judge Wilken saw through the hypocrisy. In the Ed O’Bannon v. NCAA case (the plaintiff was a former UCLA basketball player whose image was reproduced for a video game without compensation), she ruled that the NCAA’s old rules denying players compensation were in violation of antitrust laws.

She did stop short of allowing players to be paid a salary. Instead, she said that players could earn money for the use of their names and images in video games and television broadcasts — but the earnings would be put in trust funds for the players to be accessed after graduation with a cap of $5,000 per year of competition.

The ruling is the thin edge of the wedge, not only opening the way for greater future earnings by players but also damaging the once-mythic idea of the student-athlete. That is both realistic and lamentable — it comports to the true money-making nature of big-college sports but nevertheless deals a blow to an idealistic concept that put the education of students first.

The NCAA talked a good game on amateurism, but colleges have only themselves to blame for turning their sports into quasi-professional operations. If the student-athlete ideal survives at all, increasingly it may be mostly in Division III schools or in the Ivy League.

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