Facing a potential class-action lawsuit and escalating scrutiny that could lead to a seismic change in collegiate athletics, the NCAA and member conferences are trying to whitewash their record of profiting at the expense of their unpaid labor.
This week the Southeastern Conference, Big Ten and Pac-12 joined the NCAA in announcing they would no longer license their trademarks in the popular EA Sports NCAA Football video game. The NCAA is currently besieged by a lawsuit led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon over the alleged use of likenesses in EA Sports video games without compensation.
Last Thursday, the NCAA was publicly embarrassed by ESPN analyst Jay Bilas over his relentless all-day Twitter campaign that exposed team jerseys searchable by star players’ names on its online market, ShopNCAAsports.com. As Bilas’ exposure went viral, the NCAA disengaged the search component on the Web site.
By the end of the day, NCAA president Mark Emmert announced that it would stop selling school merchandise altogether.
Try going to the site now and you’re redirected to this message on NCAA.com from executive vice president Mark Lewis:
“Moving forward, the NCAA online shop will no longer offer college and university merchandise,” it reads. “In the coming days, the store’s website will be shut down temporarily and reopen as a marketplace for NCAA championship merchandise only.
“After becoming aware of issues with the site, we determined the core function of the NCAA.com fan shop should not be to offer merchandise licensed by our member schools.”
Issues? You think? You get the sense that the whole system of amateur exploitation is unraveling right in front of us as the powers that be try to retreat into a “we’re not marketing our student-athletes” posture that clearly has never been the case.
While the O’Bannon lawsuit – joined by six current players and awaiting a court ruling on its requested class-action status by September – has been looming as a potential nuclear option for awhile, the public pressure has only grown since the first news reports that Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, of Texas A&M, was being investigated for claims that he was selling his autograph.
If Manziel was doing that, he would face suspension for violating NCAA rules. He knew better.
But while nobody is arguing that it would be a foolish thing for Manziel to do considering the rules in place, the chorus has risen over whether the NCAA has the right to forbid a player from profiting off his own name when everybody from the coaches to the school to the conferences to the NCAA are making fortunes off the successes of its athletes.
Bilas, who had no idea he was leading a mutiny with his spontaneous Twitter rampage, voiced his concerns about the system to The Charlotte Observer.
“The problem I have with it is the rhetoric that they use and the fact that everybody in the sport, at every level, is getting compensated at market rate, and while they’re doing that they’re restricting the revenue drivers, the players themselves, from taking more than accepted,” Bilas said.
That rhetoric he objects to comes from statements like this when the SEC announced its withdrawal from the video game licensing.
“Neither the SEC, its member universities, nor the NCAA have ever licensed the right to use the name or likeness of any student to EA Sports,” it said.
That might be so – technically speaking – but it’s uncanny how the animated players wear the same jersey numbers and bear pigmentation resemblances to the real-life starters on any given team. Weird.
Is it also coincidental that when you walk into the university bookstore at Georgia that the racks are stuffed with jerseys that mostly seem to have the number 11 on them? They might not say Aaron Murray on the back, but the association with the star quarterback is clear. Same goes in Columbia, where there seems to be an abundance of No. 7 jerseys (Jadeveon Clowney?) for sale everywhere.
It’s really a house of cards that all the scrutiny further threatens.
“It shines an even brighter spotlight on the NCAA’s system of ‘amateurism’ that is under significant attack both legally and politically,” wrote Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel, who wrote the book exposing bowl corruption and misinformation that helped lead to the end of the BCS. “The NCAA is the last major athletic organization to attempt to keep its adult athletes from being paid or profiting off their own fame and accomplishment.”
The NCAA can’t erase years of hypocrisy by no longer selling jerseys or not authorizing use of its logos in a video game. The damage is already done and the system is justifiably heading for a rude awakening.