Preparing for a Post-O’Bannon World

(Originally appeared in businessofcollegesports.com on April 1, 2013)

Stewart Mandel has a piece out today on SI.com describing the range of urgency athletics administrators are feeling regarding the O’Bannon v. NCAA case currently making its way through the courts.  For those of you who haven’t kept up with the case, I wrote about it in more detail here.  Essentially, former UCLA men’s basketball star Ed O’Bannon and his co-plaintiffs are suing the NCAA, and other defendants, for not sharing the revenue generated in part by student-athletes both while they are in school (e.g. TV) and afterwards (e.g. video games, archive footage).  If the O’Bannon plaintiffs were to win, or even settle the case in their favor, the current structure of college athletics will be forever altered.

Mr. Mandel profiled University of Southern California athletic director Pat Haden’s concern that the case is by no means a slam dunk for the NCAA, and how he and his colleagues should be preparing for the aftermath if it were to lose the case.  I appreciated Mr. Haden’s comments.  Up until now the little we’ve heard from administrators are the doomsday scenarios spouted off by the likes of Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney, who claimed his schools would rather de-emphasize sports and join Division III than go along with any type of pay for play scenario.

Mr. Haden is a lawyer.  He’s been reading the articles from legal analysts and scholars.  He knows the NCAA is vulnerable and the case is soft.  More importantly, he knows the stakes have never been higher.  It reminds me of this Family Guy/Star Wars clip, with Mr. Haden as Darth Vader and NCAA president Mark Emmert as the Empire’s henchman talking about the “invulnerable” Death Star (current NCAA structure).  Mr. Haden is right to be concerned.  He is right to be asking questions.  He is also right to be taking proactive steps to address the possible outcomes, or perhaps look at acceptable settlement options.

The contrast to Mr. Haden is University of Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds.  He was also quoted in Mr. Mandel’s piece, but with much less concern or urgency than Mr. Haden.  Mr. Dodds seemed to think he and other athletics administrators have “more immediate things to worry about,” and “have no control over (the case).”  In my view, nothing could be further from the truth.  The case exists only because of how the NCAA and its members (of which the University of Texas and Mr. Dodds is one) have constructed the current college athletics model.  If those in power change the model, the case goes away.  And while Mr. Dodds might simply be one person in a massive bureaucracy, he leads arguably the most powerful athletic department in the country, and SI.com recently named him the 8th most powerful person in college athletics (notice Ed O’Bannon ranks #4).  My guess is others will listen when he speaks.

Last week much of the country’s attention was fixed on the Supreme Court’s hearing of two significant same-sex marriage cases.  Reading through much of the post-argument commentary from both sides, it seemed apparent that at some point in the future, though perhaps not as a direct result of these two cases, same-sex marriage will be legal across the country.  I get that same feel about the O’Bannon case and paying student-athletes.  It may not be this case or right now, but at some point in the future college athletes will be paid.  The only question is when the new era is ushered in, and how.  Pat Haden recognizes this and wants to take action; good for him.

Follow Daniel on Twitter at @DanielHare.

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