Dick Harmon: Ed O'Bannon case could rock NCAA's money stream

Published: Wednesday, June 18 2014 6:17 p.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, June 18 2014 6:17 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2010 file photo, former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon Jr. sits in his office in Henderson, Nev. Lawyers for former student athletes are seeking to turn their lawsuit against the NCAA over compensation into a class action representing thousands of collegiate competitors. A federal judge is scheduled to hear arguments in Oakland Thursday afternoon, June 20, 2013. If the lawsuit is turned into class action and the athletes prevail, the NCAA could face billions of dollars in liability. The lawsuit was initially filed by O'Bannon and several other former college athletes in 2009 who feel the NCAA is unfairly profiting from their likenesses and images in marketing deals with video games and others. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken, File)

Isaac Brekken, AP

The NCAA might be losing the Ed O’Bannon case.

If testimony this week is any indication, the NCAA is reeling in its effort to protect the notion that student-athletes are just engaged in their favorite hobbies while being given rides on the academic taxi.

In a San Francisco courtroom this week, defense attorneys for the NCAA are trying to prop up the idea that student-athletes should not receive money for use of their images. Petitioners are arguing that they should get a cut when schools, who collect billions of dollars in revenue, use their likenesses and images for promotions and advertisements.

This is a prime case of the NCAA defending a position that may ultimately be indefensible. The NCAA has created a market, milked a system and funnelled profits away from the workforce.

The NCAA is trying to defend its very purpose for being: supporting sports as an “integral part” of the educational program. Yet, these schools are raking in millions of dollars in lucrative TV deals; coaching salaries are skyrocketing with NBA- and NFL-type contracts; and universities are building Taj Mahal-type athletic facilities.

The evidence and logic behind the plantiff’s case is mounting, much of it through the words, emails, communications and testimonies of the NCAA’s own witnesses. Also, this case doesn’t have to worry about being judged by multiple personalities through the filter of a jury. It will be decided by one person, Judge Claudia Wilken, and some circuit court judges. In other words, smart folks in an antiestablishment geography.

Here’s the Cliffs Notes version on the case.

O'Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player, sued the NCAA, the Collegiate Licensing Company and Electronic Arts regarding the commercial use of images, names and likenesses of former Division I men’s basketball players and football players. The lawsuit turned into a class-action suit on behalf of former players and the NCAA is the primary defendant.

Simply put, if you try and print a Utah or BYU T-shirt and you use their licensed trademark logos, you will quickly receive a threatening letter from the schools’ licensing department to cease and desist. Why? Because those schools make a good chunk of coin on sales of each item of clothing. Thing is, if it is a Jimmer Fredette jersey with his No. 32 or a Ute jersey with Andrew Bogut’s number, the school splits income from sales with the licensed vendor. Fredette and Bogut receive nothing.

If you go down the line, when CBS uses all those highlights of star players to promote the NCAA basketball tournament, or ESPN uses all that footage of stars to promote its games (and those TV entities pay millions for rights to do so), the schools get truckloads of cash. The athletes get nothing. Well, the players get an education, which is something, but nothing compared to the greenbacks trading hands over these academic campus sidelights that are now big-time business.

This is not your college sports of the 1960s when tickets were $5.

If we’re talking money paid — not scholarships, room and board — consider the contrast for the student-athlete at zero and college professionals like Texas women’s athletic director Chris Plonsky. In 2011, Plonsky received an annual salary of package of $355,848. She got a bonus of $62,500 if the Longhorns didn’t commit a major NCAA infraction.

Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart got a raise in 2012 to make his compensation $950,000 a year. The SEC has more $3-million-a-year salaried coaches (five) than any other conference. Oklahoma State recently took on one of the most aggressive athletic fundraising campaigns in NCAA history with the help of Boone Pickens’ $248 million to help rebuild the school's football stadium and build a baseball park, soccer facility, track facility, tennis facility, equestrian center and indoor practice facility in Stillwater, Oklahoma

College athletics loves the arms race.

Thing is, this is a business that is making many entities rich.

Why? Because universities want to recruit the best talent, attract the most fans, keep up with rivals, and the investments have proved to bring in more … you got it … money.

It is the circle of life in the NCAA.

And more telling, it is manufactured on the backs of student-athletes.

The O’Bannon case.

It makes for an interesting summer.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

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