Media coverage and the NCAA vs. O’Bannon trial

Media coverage of the Ed O’Bannon vs. NCAA antitrust trial has been specifically slanted toward the side of the plaintiff.

Maybe that’s because so many interesting stories can be found when examining the O’Bannon story. For example, Stewart Mandel at Sports Illustrated had a wonderful column about Tyrone Prothro, a former wide receiver at Alabama, whose career was cut short due to an injury. He tried to write a book about his time at Alabama and wanted to run some photos of the incredible catch he made in 2005, and was told he’d have to pay $10 dollars per picture. He also got to see his catch run time after time on television as part of a Pontiac ad. He was never compensated for that ad. No one even thought of it.

It’s also easy to look at Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike shoe salesman who changed the way college athletics was looked at by introducing the term “shoe contract” to the lexicon of college coaches and administrators. When asked by the Knight Commission of Intercollege Athletics in 2001, “why should a university be an advertising medium for your industry?” Vaccaro replied:

“They shouldn’t, sir. You sold your souls, and you’re going to continue selling them. You can be very moral and righteous in asking me that question, sir, but there’s not one of you in this room that’s going to turn down any of our money. You’re going to take it. I can only offer it.’”

It’s easy to make a monster of the NCAA. The organization is filled with rampant greed. It’s just as easy to take aim at the five major conferences, those who are holding the rest of the organization hostage by threatening to create another division for their own uses. These are the guys who have destroyed countless traditional rivalries (Missouri/Kansas, Texas/Texas Tech easily come to mind) in search of better television deals.

The testimony from the trial is what we’d expect. Athletes take the stand and testify about the hours spent as athletes compared to the hours spent as students and we go over the list of scandals that have rocked the NCAA in recent years, including North Carolina, where athletes took sham classes in order to stay eligible and graduate.

And then the NCAA says that since athletes sign form 08-3a they have no rights, so they have no rights to their images. For the NCAA it’s that simple.

It’s hard to make that a staple to stand on and win media approval. But the NCAA doesn’t care about media approval, the NCAA cares about winning this case. The organization can say little that will affect how fans watch the games they love. Fans are going to watch Alabama play next year, no matter what happened to a wide receiver who made a wonderful play in 2005. He’s forgotten now. The truth is, the players, to the NCAA, are not as important as the conferences and the schools. The players keep leaving; the institutions remain. The players are not only replaceable; they constantly must be replaced. It’s all a matter of perspective. For the plaintiffs, the athletes, the case is about recognizing that athletes are at universities to compete athletically, that they are the reason fans come to watch games and networks pay billions of dollars to broadcast the games they athletes play. To the NCAA, the athletes are disposable pieces that fill out the uniforms that represent the specific teams and conferences that exist in the organization. Fans are paying to watch the teams and not the athletes. Therefore, athletes must be forced to give up their rights to their images on their first days on campus because keeping those rights would make it more difficult to maintain all their rules for eligibility. For the NCAA, this is an administrative issue.

This fits. Interview after interview of athletic administrators consistently returned the same answer when asking the question about allowing athletes to keep their rights to publicity.

“It would create a nightmare,” was the constant reply. “How would we keep track of who was doing what?”

How does the NCAA sell that to the media? They don’t. They just hope their argument makes sense to the judge.

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