Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Are Ed O’Bannon and Jake Fischer the cure for NCAA arms race insanity?

Over the past couple of weeks there have been two huge announcements for athletics at the University of Arizona. One, the opening of the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility, will help UA remain competitive in major college football for a generation or more. The other, UA football players Jake Fischer and Jake Smith joining a landmark likeness lawsuit against the NCAA, could change college athletics as we know it.

The $72 million football complex, built into the north end zone of Arizona Stadium, is part of the athletic facilities arms race, which along with skyrocketing coaching salaries in football and men’s basketball, has plagued the NCAA since at least the 1980s.

According to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which studies the effects of out-of-control athletics spending, between 1995 and 2005, American universities spent $15 billion on new or refurbished athletic facilities. Just in the past year in the biggest college football conferences, the Pac-12, Big 10, Southeast and Big 12, schools have spent about $1 billion on new facilities.

While Arizona athletic officials crowed last week about how competitive the Wildcats will be in landing new recruits now that they’re no longer ashamed of their dank, cramped offices and workout rooms buried in the bowels of the basketball arena, the University of Oregon, thanks to its billionaire benefactor Phil Knight, of Nike athletic apparel fame, showed that when it comes to pampering spoiled young men, Arizona is still a piker.

The disgusting opulence of the Oregon facility is a monument to everything that’s wrong with college athletics. Besides a hot tub video viewing room for the head coach, there are movie theaters, luxurious lounges, game rooms, barber salons, big screen TVs galore, including ones embedded in bathroom mirrors so players can shave and watch ESPN at the same time, huge climate-controlled lockers with connections for all the latest electronic gizmos, and much, much more. But it’s not just the amenities; it’s the building materials – Brazilian wood floors, Italian leather furniture (the same leather as in Ferrari sports cars, no less) and marble counter tops that make the place look like a modern palace.

And it’s exclusive to the school’s football players and coaching and football administration staff.

The point of all this luxury is to cater to high school athletes who want to play football in college so they can play football in the NFL. They’re unconcerned about the quality of college’s engineering or economics programs, the number of genius grant recipients teaching in the chemistry or biology departments, or the number of books published by professors in the English and history programs.

It’s not about how a university will educate them and prepare them for life and a career, but how well the school will educate them and prepare them for a career in the NFL while pampering them like the kings of the universe they are.

College athletics is not about student athletes anymore. It’s about money. Lots of it. Billions and billions of dollars.

According to the Knight report, college athletics is a nearly $100 billion annual industry. That’s not just money the schools make off ticket sales or the schools, the NCAA and the conferences make off of TV broadcast rights sales, but the money cities make from hosting bowl games and championship tournaments, and that retailers make off the sale of logo apparel, furniture, dishes, bedding, auto upholstery and the thousands of other items on which you can slap a school logo.

Coaches and athletic directors are lavished with million-dollar salaries whether they’re good or not, and if they’re no good, with million-dollar contract buyouts, while coaches can yank scholarships from players at any time for any reason and the student has no recourse whatsoever. Even the concessionaires selling hot dogs and sugary drinks at the stadiums are making good livings off college sports.

Everyone associated with college sports is making enormous sums of money. Everyone, that is, except the players (fewer than 2 percent of college athletes end up playing professional sports).

Enter former UCLA basketball great Ed O’Bannon. He filed a landmark lawsuit against the NCAA in 2009 for licensing his likeness to EA Sports, a video game maker that created a game in which fans could pick the best teams in history of the ol’ Alma Mater and play against historic teams from other schools, such as O’Bannon’s 1995 NCAA championship team against the UA’s Mike Bibby and the 1997 NCAA basketball championship team.

O’Bannon was of the mind that he was the owner of his likeness and he controlled who could make money off his image. Except when he signed up for his scholarship at UCLA, he signed his face away to the NCAA forever. They can do whatever they want with it and he doesn’t get to share in any of the profit.

All NCAA scholarship athletes sign the same contract. No signing away your likeness, no scholarship.

The NCAA argues that if players are able to control their image, it encumbers the association’s ability to sell broadcast rights, jerseys and other sports paraphernalia, all of which benefits the non-marquee sports such as golf and track and field and provides opportunities to women athletes.

Because of the money and passions involved in college athletics, the NCAA has been consumed for decades on creating a level playing field that ensures all schools have a reasonable chance of athletic success.

Without its draconian rules restricting any flow of money to college athletes, the schools with the richest boosters could buy the best players and win all the games.

That might have made sense in the 1960s but in the era of Oregon player palaces it’s ridiculous. An Oregon football player from a poor family can watch TV on a $3,000 plasma screen while sitting in a Ferrari leather sofa but not have enough money in his pocket to buy a Big Mac. And if someone gives him the $5, he could lose his scholarship.

That’s one of the reasons there are movie theaters and pool tables in the Oregon palace, many poor players can’t afford to go out to the movies with friends, or shoot a game of stick in a bar. Now they can do both in the palace and not risk losing their scholarship.

But that doesn’t obfuscate the gross hypocrisy of the palace. The millions of dollars the coaches and school are making off the players while the players get only “a free education” is obscene.

Moreover, the players risk their health playing football, through head injuries and the shredding of muscles, ligaments and tendons, some so bad, their athletic careers come to an end before they even get close to sniffing the glory of the NFL. A lifetime suffering the debilitating effects of these injuries is of no concern to the NCAA.

Fischer and Smith and four other current college athletes joined the O’Bannon suit to change it from one of former players combating the in perpetuity clause but also of current players being forced to submit to a noncompetitive scheme in which they’re banned from selling their own image while others make millions off it. The hope is to have the federal judge declare the suit a class action that encompasses all current and former college players.

Fischer, in his statement about joining the suit, said he is particularly concerned about the health of college football players. In his time at UA he has witnessed fellow teammate Adam Hall have his football career possibly come to an end with successive knee injuries and a coaching change. Hall, who managed to get his undergraduate degree before his athletic eligibility ran out, was on a path to be one of the next great Arizona defensive backs and a big NFL pay day, perhaps similar to that a few years ago of Antoine Cason, who has been paid more than $10 million so far in his NFL career.

Besides his painful knee injuries, Hall also had to endure a coaching change and according to his father, didn’t see eye-to-eye with his new coach. His old coach and his new coach were paid millions (including the old coach getting $1.5 million in a contract buyout after his firing). All Hall has is his degree and a bad knee. The promise of NFL millions are far away and possibly gone. Who will pay for his knee from now on? Not the NCAA.

If the O’Bannon lawsuit is successful, it will change the economics of college athletics forever; whether for the better or for ill is unknown.

But something has to change. The money of college football and men’s basketball is out of control, moreover, it’s grossly unfair to the athletes responsible for the revenue.

According to research by USA Today of public universities and their athletic programs, in 2011, the UA paid its few dozen athletic team coaches $20.1 million in salary. It spent about $9.7 million on the education of its hundreds of scholarship athletes.

A little less of the former and a little more for the latter is only fair.

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